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Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Reflections from a Clausewizian Strategic Theory Perspective

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

[by Joseph Guerra]

Let me start by saying it is an honor to be able to comment on such a classic work of strategic thought in such a forum as this.  I thank Mark/zen for this opportunity and hope that I am able to do justice to this subject.

I approach Thucydides’s work from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective. The book can be seen as perhaps the earliest attempt in Western literature to come up with a theory of grand strategy.  There is a lot to be said for this approach.  If we consider that Clausewitz’s general theory of war could be part of a larger general theory of strategy, or grand strategy, then a relationship between the two classic works, that is Clausewitz’s On War and Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War becomes clear.

This could come across as questionable for many, since at first glance the two books are quite different.  Clausewitz discusses various types of theory in his book providing military historical examples to make his point.  Thucydides gives a detailed history of a specific conflict from various perspectives; provides a intricate view of political relations, including narratives of the time.  Raymond Aron came up with an interesting comment on the two authors which puts these distinctions within a common context:

It seems that we owe the great books on action to men of action whom fate deprived of their crowning achievement, men who arrived at a subtle blend of engagement and detachment which left them capable of recognising the constraints and shackles of the soldier or the politician and also capable of looking from outside, not indifferently but calmly, at the irony of fate and the unforeseeable play of forces that no will can control.  Philosophy presents an image of pessimism.  For what, may one ask, makes victories precarious and the state unstable?  Whoever devotes himself to the state chooses to build sandcastles.  There remains for him only the hope  of Thucydides or that of Clausewitz: “My ambition was to write a book which could not be forgotten after two or three years, but which could be taken up several times when required by those who take an interest in this subject.”   Clausewitz, Philosopher of War, p 12.

Book 1 of The Peloponnesian War offers various points for consideration from a Clausewitzian perspective.  The conflict is rooted in the political relations of the various communities involved (see “War is an Act of Human Intercourse”, Book II, Chapter 3).  Sparta initially uses a Strategy of Annihilation, whereas Athens a Strategy of Attrition, to use Hans Delbrück’s terminology.  Both sides display various stages and types of moral and material cohesion which varies as the conflict progresses.  All three of these would warrant comment from this perspective, but there is an additional aspect which I intend to introduce here and deal with in future posts.  This is the concept of strategic narrative.

One of the advantages of Clausewitz’s general theory of war is that it is compatible with a wide range of other strategic thought which is not limited to the military.  Such different (non-military) thinkers as Max Weber, Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King approached social action and community perceptions from a distinctly Clausewitzian outlook.  All would understand the importance of strategic narrative.

In his book, War From the Ground Up, Emile Simpson not only defines strategic narrative, but links it to Clausewitz:

‘Strategic narrative’ is a contemporary term, but is a formalisation of a concept that has been present in all conflicts.  Strategic narrative is the explanation of actions.  It can usually be detected chronologically before conflict starts, in some form, as the explanation for participation in, or initiation of, the conflict; strategic narrative also operates as the explanation of actions during and after conflict.

Strategy seeks to relate actions to policy.  A policy outcome is ultimately an impression upon an audience.  It can be a physical impression, which in war would typically be defined in terms of death and destruction.  It can simultaneously be a psychological impression, typically defined in terms of an evolution in political alignment, not necessarily by consent.  For strategy to connect actions to policy it must therefore invest them with a great meaning in relation to its audiences, both prospectively and retrospectively. page 179-180.

This narrative should be realised in a coherent set of actions which give it expression . . . strategic narrative is not just concerned with audiences exterior to one’s side, or coalition.  One of the key functions is to achieve unity of effort, ideally to give coherent expression to that side’s will, as Carl von Clausewitz would put it.  page 182.

A strategic narrative that is seen as incoherent or contradictory by the various audiences, or becomes incoherent over time, will obviously fail in its purpose.

James Boyd White (“the other Boyd”) devotes an entire chapter to Thucydides in his When Words Lose Their Meaning.  The tight fit between the speeches provided by Thucydides throughout The Peloponnesian War and the strategic narrative then in effect act as an indicator of how these various strategic narratives develop or decay over time.  The words also act as reflections of the loss of moral and material cohesion within the various political communities depicted as the war progresses.  Boyd White describes accurately Thucydides world as related in Book 1:

. . . this was a highly structured world, rich in resources for argument and action.  The very fact that the cities could jockey for position as they did, each seeking to place the other in the wrong, shows that they operated on terms established by a shard and comprehensible discourse and that each was acting in part for an audience, internal or external, who would use that discourse to judge what it did.  Thucydides now gives us the opportunity to learn something about the nature of that discourse, for at this moment Corcyra sends a delegation to Athens to ask for an alliance, and Corinth sends a representative to resist them.  Thucydides presents their speeches in considerable detail.

This is a highly literary moment, of which we can ask: Of all the things that might be said here, what will the speakers choose to say? How will they try to persuade the Athenians to do what they want them to?  To what values will they appeal, for example?  What pleas, what charges, what veiled or explicit threats or promises, will they make?  Will they call on the gods, on compassion or justice, or on tradition of the law?  Will they appeal to the Athenians’ economic or military self-interest, and if so how will they define these things?  Or will they appeal to the Athenians’ sense of their own character, say, as virtuous or brave or generous, and how will they do that?  In what terms will they tell their stories?  page 62

Book 1 fittingly ends with Pericles’s speech to the Athenians (1.140-144), where he lays out clearly the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides.  He accurately depicts Athens’s advantage at the onset and rightly fears the potential blunders of his own side over the strengths and strategy of the enemy.  Given her position among the Greeks, Athens has no choice but to fight.

On to Book 2.

Sunday surprise: peering digitally around corners 2: Blade Runner

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — moving from a consideration of Holbein’s Ambassadors to a celebrated scene in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner — and thence, wide-angle, to Kumbh Mela ]
.

Here’s the Bladerunner scene:

What Ridley Scott depicts is a camera with the ability to see around corners — a fantastic piece of science fictional cinematography, demonstrating a sufficiently advanced technology with a skill amounting to wizardry.

**

How close, though, can state-of-the-art cameras come to seeing around corners? Here’s what Nature has to say:

Andreas Velten, Thomas Willwacher, Otkrist Gupta, Ashok Veeraraghavan, Moungi G. Bawendi & Ramesh Raskar, Recovering three-dimensional shape around a corner using ultrafast time-of-flight imaging:

Abstract:

The recovery of objects obscured by scattering is an important goal in imaging and has been approached by exploiting, for example, coherence properties, ballistic photons or penetrating wavelengths. Common methods use scattered light transmitted through an occluding material, although these fail if the occluder is opaque. Light is scattered not only by transmission through objects, but also by multiple reflection from diffuse surfaces in a scene. This reflected light contains information about the scene that becomes mixed by the diffuse reflections before reaching the image sensor. This mixing is difficult to decode using traditional cameras. Here we report the combination of a time-of-flight technique and computational reconstruction algorithms to untangle image information mixed by diffuse reflection. We demonstrate a three-dimensional range camera able to look around a corner using diffusely reflected light that achieves sub-millimetre depth precision and centimetre lateral precision over 40 cm×40 cm×40 cm of hidden space.

Here’s another illustrative video:

**

Okay, seeing is simple, but we’re Zenpundit, so there’s gotta be a military angle we can see around, no?

Here are two possibilities — the first is called CornerShot:

while the second is called ShotView:

**

We’re still pretty far from Ridley’s Blade Runner, but the idea of seeing / shooting around corners has clearly caught the imagination of others.

Okay, those last two videos are for those interested in matters martial.

Kumbh Mela

For my own sake, and for the possible interest of blog-friend Pundita, let’s take a look at a video of Ramesh Raskar, head of MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture research group and one of the authors of the Nature paper quoted above.

Here Dr Raskar is talking about that most fascinating of Hindu festivals — and largest of human gatherings? — the Kumbh Mela

Talk about wicked problems — and crowd-sourcing solutions — and genius — and the manifold intersections of the secular and the sacred!

Four angles plus one on reading Trump

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on the need for an analytic open mind — or hedging one’s bets? ]
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I suppose we have to start with Trumpian Fundamentalism — by wbich I mean, taking the literal meaning from whatever he says. This view is simple, even simplistic.

One down, three to go.

**

There’s Lt. Gen. Flynn‘s view:

In the linked Politico article, Flynn is quoted thus:

Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn says he’s trying to get Donald Trump to be more precise in how he talks about foreign policy, but he defended some of his hardline proposals as simply opening offers in negotiations on world affairs.

“First of all, I don’t agree with everything that he said. But he’s an individual who’s willing to take on a challenge,” the retired lieutenant general, a former President Barack Obama appointee who advises Trump on foreign policy, told Al Jazeera English’s “UpFront.” “The other aspect is there must be more precision in the use of the language that he uses as the potential leader of the free world. There has to be more precision, and those are the types of pieces of advice that I’m trying to get into him to say [to] be more precise, be more conscious about what you say about foreign policy issues because they are complicated.” [ .. ]

In Trump’s defense, Flynn said the real estate mogul sees the world from the perspective of a global businessman and suggested the billionaire’s bombastic rhetoric is just a starting point for negotiations.

Trump’s strategy is to “start really, really high and really, really hard, OK?” Flynn explained. “And then, be prepared to get down to where you think you can actually negotiate.”

This view has the advantage of following a business model, and Trump may or may not be anything else, but he’s surely a businessman. It also leaves a lot of room for “play” between his stated intentions on the one hand, and what he’s liable to settle for when talk comes to signature on the other.

**

Third, there’s Trump’s ghostwriter’s view:

Schwartz‘ tweet was quickly paired — for instance — with:

This angle has the advantage of psychological plausibility.

How can I put this kindly? The poet Rumi is quoted as saying “Many of the faults you see in others, dear reader, are your own nature reflected in them.”

**

Fourth..

I gather there is or was until fairly recently a US submarine defensive system called a MOSS (mobile submarine simulator) MK70 — a decoy launched from a torpedo tube which Wikipedia tells us [1, 2] lacked an explosive warhead but was “able to generate both an active sonar echo and a passive sound signature recorded to be extremely similar to that of the launching submarine” — thus effectively simulating a full size submarine.

I learned this today after looking up “chaff” in the belief that Trump may simply be scattering all manner of provocative yet contradictory statements in his wake, with a view to confusing the hell out of his enemies — whether his fellow Republicans, his presumptive Democratic opponent, or potentially hostile state and nonstate actors abroad.

Call that the Kim Jong Il factor — and consider by way of analogy Why it’s sane for Kim Jong-il to be crazy.

**

And quintessentially?

Those were my four original angles — but thought of Trump and Kim Jong Il reminded me of talk of Trump and Vladimir Putin — and I can’t really leave this topic without noting blog-friend Cheryl Rofer‘s recent writings on the subject:

  • Cheryl Rofer, Trump and Russia
  • Cheryl Rofer, Trump’s Russian Deals
  • Cheryl Rofer, What Trump Has Said About Russia
  • Cheryl Rofer, Donald Trump: Fellow Traveler Or Useful Idiot?
  • **

    In my view, reading Trump comes close to qualifying as a wicked problem:

    A wicked problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented. The term was originally coined by Horst Rittel.

    Wicked problems always occur in a social context — the wickedness of the problem reflects the diversity among the stakeholders in the problem.

    Perhaps this explains in part why there’s such considerable polarization in our various responses to Donald J Trump and his many tweets and speeches.

    For more on wicked problems:

  • Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity
  • The epigraph to Conklin’s chapter is from Laurence J. Peter, and reads:

    Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

    I have to say, I feel that way a lot these days.

    Firefights, breath, & meditation

    Monday, June 20th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — remembering my father, Capt Orford Gordon Cameron, DSC, RN ]
    .

    I came across two pieces with overlapping descriptions of what happens to the body, perceptions, and thought, in a firefight. As is my habit, I’ve picked some of the essential text and accompanying illustration in each case, and offer them to you in my DoubleQuote format:

    DQ Breath and time dilation

    **

    The first quote, with the Boyd OODA Loop diagram heading it, comes from Tim Lynch‘s Fourth Generation War Comes To America: What Are You Going To Do About It?, which Michael Yon linked to.

    Lynch’s piece is his response to the Orlando shooting, its thrust being that the event went on way too long, and that we need more people to identify (and prepare) themselves as sheepdogs:

    Human Sheepdogs are, by nature, not a threat to their fellow citizens but are death dealing fighting machines when they, their loved ones or the sheep (other citizens) are in peril.

    In particular, Lynch delivers a mini-seminar on the essential contents of two books:

  • LTC Dave Grossman, On Killing
  • Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear
  • The second comes from Adam Linehan‘s This Is Your Brain On War at Task & Purpose. Again, the topic centers around Grossman’s work, but in this case the framing has to do with the tranfer of psychological insight from sports medicine to the military profession.

    There’s more in Linehan’s piece that’s relevant to my posting here than I’ve been able to quote in my “tablet” DQ format, so here’s some additional detail:

    The moment an engagement kicks off, the body initiates a dramatic response, beginning with the circulatory system, which immediately shunts blood away from the body surface. This, Grossman explains, is the body preparing to suck up damage.

    Preparing to absorb damage, the circulatory system moves blood away from the body’s surface to its core.

    “It’s called vasoconstriction. Just before the capillaries, there’s a mechanical shutdown of the blood flow, and now the arteries and the body core are holding up to twice as much blood. That’s why the face goes white.”

    There are two primary reasons for this. One, it helps prevent bruising, which is what happens when the capillaries and veins burst from blunt force trauma. If there’s no blood, they remain intact. But more importantly, the redirected blood flow helps keep the person alive long enough to finish the fight. [ .. ]

    Blood drains from the brain’s rational control center (the forebrain), leaving the midbrain in full control, at which point, you will do what you’ve been trained to do.

    That’s because, at its most extreme, vasoconstriction affects the brain, too. “As the blood drains from the face, blood drains from the forebrain, and there’s no rational thought,” Grossman explains. “I call that ‘condition black.’ And at condition black, the midbrain is in charge, and you’ll do what you’ve been trained to do — no more, no less. You will do what you’ve been programmed to do — no more, no less.”

    Thus, if a soldier reaches condition black and lacks adequate training, there’s a good chance he or she will freeze up. A well-trained soldier, on the other hand, will likely take action to neutralize the threat. “Given a clear and present danger, with today’s training almost everyone will shoot,” Grossman says.

    There are specific impacts on perception, too:

    Many soldiers report barely being able to hear the blast of their own rifles during combat.

    “The lion’s roar is a deafening, stunning event,” says Grossman. “But the lion doesn’t hear his roar, just like the dog doesn’t hear his bark. Their ears shut down, and so do ours. Gunpowder is our roar.”

    Under high stress, the nerve connecting the inner ear and the brain shuts down, resulting in temporary hearing loss, or “auditory exclusion.”

    This phenomenon is called “auditory exclusion,” and it’s a result of the nerve that connects the inner ear and the brain shutting down in the heat of battle. According to Grossman, 90% of combat soldiers report having experienced auditory exclusion. “You get caught by surprise in an ambush. Boom. Boom. Boom. The shots are loud and overwhelming. You return fire, boom. The shots get quiet, but you’re still getting hearing damage.”

    A soldier’s vision can also be affected by combat, and Grossman uses two different so-called predator models — the “charging lion” and the “wolf-pack dynamic” — to explain this.

    This is where the quote I selected about two types of vision — one in tight focus, one diffusely aware of everything going on around you — kicks in.

    And one more thing: there’s time-dilation.

    A number of soldiers and law enforcement officers whom Grossman has interviewed reported being able track incoming rounds with their eyes.

    There is another phenomenon involving vision that is widely disputed, but which Grossman insists is real, and that’s the experience of what he calls “slow-motion time.”

    “I have had hundreds of people tell me they can see the bullet in combat,” he says. “Many have been able to later point to where the bullet hit, and they could not have done that without tracking the bullet with their eyes. Not like the matrix. It’s like a paintball, where the bullet is slow enough you can track it with your eyes.”

    **

    I’m not much of a gun person — though this is Father’s Day, and I do recall going on exercises aboard my father‘s command (Royal Navy) when I was nine, and firing the Oerlikon and Bofors guns. Why, then, am I interested enough in these two articles to recap them together here?

    It’s because I’m a meditator, and concerned with breath and matters of cognition — so “high end firearms instruction includes breathing exercises that are designed to bleed off adrenaline and keep the pulse below 150” speaks to my daily practice — not because I’m in firefights, but because I want to enter a state of peace, and remain peaceable even when not meditating.

    And that, my friends, means there’s some common ground between warfare and peacefare right here, in the breath. Which is something I think should be of keen interest to all of us.

    Linehan’s article goes into more detail regarding cognition under fire, but two points particularly strike me. The first is that he mentions two states, often in rapid alternation, one involving tightly focused awareness, and the other a wide-angled awareness of 360 degrees around you, not to mention above and below..

    That interests me because there are two major strands of meditative practice, one using a tight focus (eg on the breath, a mantra, etc), and the other picking up on whatever crosses the threshold of consciousness, not only from all around your external environment, but also from the various streams of bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. Mantra meditation is of one kind, zen sitting an example of the other.

    Don’t take my word for it, though, I’m probably missing some important subtleties, and practice under the watchful eye of a teacher will give you a far better sense of the distinction and its niceties than I can.

    The last thing? Time dilation.

    It’s my experience — sometimes in meditation, but perhaps most noticeably when I was in a car rolling over and over in the Nevada desert — that time as perceived can both slow down and speed up. There can be all the time in the world to notice every last detail of what’s happening — and it can all be over in a flash, a split-second.

    Words really don’t do such experiences justice, so I’ll leave it at that. But the similarities and commonalities between military experience under fire and meditative experience in the cool of the day are striking enough to warrant in-depth study — or as the meditation community might out it, further contemplation.

    Guest Post: Why the United States cannot put Boots on the Ground to Fight ISIS

    Saturday, June 18th, 2016

    [Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Today, I’m pleased to offer a guest post by LtCol. Bob Weimann, USMC (ret.) .  Weimann is the former Commanding Officer, Kilo Co., 3/1 and Weapons Company 3/1. He also served as a Marine Security Force Company commanding officer, an infantry battalion Operations Officer and the Executive Officer of 1/6 during Desert Storm. A frequent presenter at the Boyd & Beyond Conferences, Bob is on the Board of Directors of UAP (United American Patriots) and a contributing editor to www.defendourmarines.com . UAP is a non-profit charity that aids military service members to help defray expenses for an adequate and fair legal defense. See What UAP Believes here: http://www.unitedpatriots.org/ .

    Why the United States Cannot Put Boots on the Ground to Fight ISIS

    By Bob Weimann

    The expression “boots on the ground” has an extended military-jargon history…The term is used to convey the belief that military success can only be achieved through the direct physical presence of troops in a conflict area … The term is particularly applied currently (2010) to counter-insurgency operations.[1]

    The expression “boots on the ground” basically means we need to send in ground troops, grunts, warriors, dog-faces, jarheads, combatants…those shifty eyed fowl mouth two fisted go for broke Soldiers and Marines that close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver in order to kill the enemy. These are the folks that must place the front site of their rifle on an enemy and pull the trigger. These are warriors brave enough to step through the doorway of an enemy occupied house, detect and disarmed an IED, engage a treacherous enemy that does not take prisoners and an enemy that does not hesitate to torturer and murder innocents. Our warriors are the sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, neighbors, and acquaintances from every community, town, city and state across this country and one of the greatest representative cross sections of patriotic American citizens in existence.

    Our warriors are a different generation but they possess the same spirt America’s warriors have establish and exhibited since the Revolutionary War. For over 240 years these folks have never let us down and have volunteer for the nasty, dirty, immoral, brutalizing effects of combat. You can say we lost in Viet Nam, Somali, Iraq and Afghanistan but the scary truth is we lost those wars strategically after we won them tactically. The unfortunate reality is that the strategic always trumps the tactical. Tactical is all about the troops; strategy is all about the generals.

    The other scary fact is that since 2003, we have seen an unprecedented number of courts martial that the media labels “war crimes” … more “war crime” legal cases since 2003 than in all the battle history of all the United States war’s combined. How can this be possible when we have fielded to today’s battles the best trained, best equipped, smartest warriors in this country’s history?

    The issue is not the troops, the issue here is the senior military leadership, the general officers that have forgotten they are warriors and exhibit the traits and leadership characteristics of politicians. Today’s general officers understand careerism but do not understand the Laws of War that should be their stock and trade.  They hid behind lawyers and Rule of Law equivocations that cannot co-exist on a battlefield.

    For this reason, we cannot put combat boots on the ground because the troops are being used as political cannon fodder. Over and over again we see American combatants thrown under the bus for the sake of justifying a policy objective of executing a bad military strategy.  Names like Lt Ilario Pantano, Sgt Larry Hutchins, SSgt Frank Wuterich, Sgt Michael Williams, Sgt Jose Nazario, 1Sgt John Hatley, Sgt Derrick Miller, Capt Roger Hill, Lt Michael Behenna, Major Fred Galvin, Major Matt Goldsteyn, PFC Corey Clayett, GySgt Timothy Hogan, SPC Franklin Dunn, SSgt Osee Fagan, SPC Michael Wagnon, and Lt Clint Lorance are the more notable cases. You can be certain that the list will continue to grow not only with the recent Afghanistan Kunduz Hospital Airstrike[2] but also any combat actions against the terrorist in Iraq and Syria.

    Military campaigns are always based on a “kill or capture” strategy, however, our leadership does not believe in a kill strategy nor do they believe in a capture strategy. Our military leadership believes that our Soldiers and Marines are in combat to die for the “greater good”.[3] Instead of capture, we have a “catch and release” program that continually frees known enemy combatants and terrorist to again kill, not only our service members, but also civilians. “Catch and release” is nothing more than a treachery award program for the enemy. Our generals believe that our combatants have no right to self-defense on the battlefield.[4] The idea that our warriors are there to make the enemy die for their cause is a lost priority in our general officer’s politically correct minds.

    We cannot put boots on the ground because our generals do not trust our Soldiers and Marines to show the initiative necessary for successful combat operations. The generals have forgotten how to fight and win. They have forgotten how to support our warriors by setting the correct strategic policies to allow them to fight. We no longer have combat commanders. The Washington DC political cronies continue to dedicate failed policies that undermine and kill our warriors in order to acquire political curry and favoritism.

    War is not a moral exercise. There is no morality that can justify the slaughter of war. War is the ultimate competition that is won by killing the bad guys and bringing our warriors home alive. Collateral damage is an unescapable reality. Yes, collateral damage considerations are important but collateral damage must be weighed against military necessity. The Laws of War principle of military necessity allows for a rigorous war; a rigorous war is a short war; and a short war minimizes civilian casualties. Mixed into military necessity is the idea that field commanders have a responsibility to bring home alive as many of our warriors as possible. Sending them to Leavenworth is not part of the “bringing them home” equation.

     

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boots_on_the_Ground

    [2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunduz_hospital_airstrike

    [3] http://www.wnd.com/2012/03/sacrifice-marines-for-the-greater-good/

    [4] http://newsok.com/article/3690397


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