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Grand Strategy and Morality II.

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010


After I wrote the post Grand Strategy and Morality, blogfriend T. Greer had a serious objection:

Grand Strategy, I submit, does not provide us with a moral purpose. Rather, grand strategy is the means we use to satisfy the demands of this purpose. You cannot have grand strategy without the purpose – but they are not one and the same. Purpose transcends individual statesmen. It is the work of peoples, not politicians. As I state later in the piece:

Greer cites his erudite essay on the subject, Dreaming Grand Strategy for the full explanatory argument ( here is Greer’s excerpt but you should read the whole thing):

In  Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History Frederick Merk states that the defining feature of the American polity has been its “sense of mission.” Americans, says he, have always been invested in the idea that their Republic served a great purpose. They could never delegate their destiny to the realpoliticking of the upper echelons of power. In times of crisis it is this sense of of purpose that has sustained the Republic, and in achieving national goals it is this sense of purpose that has acted as the unconscious guide of American statesmen and citizens alike. Strip away America’s mission, and you have stripped away America. And in doing so you have stripped away our grand strategy as well.

You will be hard pressed to find a strategy articulated and pursued by American statesmen that was not embedded in a larger sense of American purpose. The isolationism of the early 1800s was rooted in the conviction that America was creating “an Empire of Liberty”, untouched by the despotism of the old world. 50 years later the nation fulfilled its “Manifest Destiny” to “Extend the Area of Freedom” by expanding to the Pacific coast. Before Roosevelt could put “Germany First”, he needed to declare that his country was “The Arsenal of Democracy”.  Kennan’s policy of containment was reliant on the assurance that America was the true and only “Leader of the Free World.”

Phrases like “Manifest Destiny” and “Arsenal of Democracy” were not merely the rhetorical flourish used by canny politicians to justify the exercise of power. They were the reason power was exercised in the first place. These phrases were, in essence, bit-sized distillations of the mission and purpose Americans claimed for their nation. Containment only worked because the American populace believed that it was America’s mission to act as the Leader of the Free World. Cold War grand strategy was an outgrowth of this mission – a means to maintaining the mission’s end.

Purpose provides America with a vision. It prioritizes our interests, informs us of our enemies, and tells us what position we seek to hold on the international scene. A nation without a purpose is a nation without a grand strategy to achieve it.

I’m very sympathetic to much of what is in this post at Scholar’s Stage because we are grasping toward the same point: the relationship between grand strategy and moral purpose. Having reflected on T.Greer’s argument and my own prior post, here is my response:

  • While moral purpose is a constant variable in grand strategy generally, in specific historical cases it’s importance will vary significantly.
  • At times, Greer is right that grand strategy is embedded in a prexisting moral purpose. I certainly agree that that civilizational values and mores govern the nature of the grand strategies that societies will construct.
  • Greer’s essay, albeit persuasive, is too American-centric. The US among a handful of nations ( France, the former USSR, Imperial Japan, etc.) that requires a more explicit and rhetorically robust moral-ideological justification for a grand strategy than is typical. Some states only need a grand strategy that does not flagrantly contradict national moral principles, while other states require a grand strategy that champions them. Americans want America to be the “Citty on a hill”; others just want their country to survive with honor.
  • At other times, when realpolitik reigns, a successful grand strategy can ignite or act as a catalyst for a resurgence of moral purpose rather than be driven by it. Bismarck’s successful articulation of grand strategy went against prevailing elite opinion in the German states that was weighted heavily against Prussian domination of a united Germany, the military arguments of von Moltke’s grossgeneralstab and the preferences of Bismarck’s own monarch, King Wilhelm of Prussia. Bismarck’s wars of choice against Denmark, Austria-Hungary and France made Wilhem Kaiser and unleashed a ferocious dynamism of German nationalism whose consequences were to shake the world. 

My preference would be for strategic theory to be neat and clean, but history is a messy business.

The Afghanistan 2050 Roundtable Continues…..

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

The  Afghanistan 2050 Roundtable going on at Chicago Boyz:

Dr. David RonfeldtAfghanistan 2050: Tribes vs. Networks, cont.:

The dozen BOIDS – small ultra-quiet stealthy long-range aerial DIY drones designed to swarm against an adversary’s OODA loops – idled in range of the target, undetected, waiting for a signal that the first stone was being cast.  Ten of the drones were piloted remotely by individuals who had paid large sums to train and participate in what they were about to do: stone the stoners.  The other two were for tactical topsight and command (TTC, the new C4ISR) and were operated by a unit of HubrisNemesis, the secretive ethicalist netfirm whose lineage included Sea Shepherd.*  ….

Dr. Daniel Abbott –  Afghanistan: Breaking Away from the Pack

Without comment, this animation courtesy of gnxp

Karaka Pend – Back to the Future: Afghanistan in 2050

….The differences between Afghanistan pre-Taliban and Afghanistan post-Taliban are challenging to conceive. From 1996 until the invasion of the United States in 2001, the world as Afghanistan knew it changed dramatically, and undeniably for the worse. The lot of women under the Taliban’s harsh regime was devastating. But perhaps the greatest hope for Afghanistan in 2050 is to look into its past.


From the ’50’s to the ’70’s, Afghanistan was a largely stable country under the rule of Mohammed Zahir Shah. The King steered his country slowly into modernization, opening it to the West and allowing his subjects greater political freedom. The culture of the time also liberalized, providing social freedoms for both men and women. Notably, women were allowed into the work force, chose whether to cover or uncover their hair and bodies, and had more substantial agency over their own lives.

Joseph Fouche – Afghanistan 2050: Walking and Chewing Gum at the Same Time

….I’ve referenced this podcast by the distinguished soldier and military commenter Col. Douglas Macgregor (ret.) before. Macgregor, who served in Armor, talks about the U.S. Army’s light infantry and its patron saint Lt. Gen. David “Make No Waves” Petreaus as if it was a mortal enemy of the Armor (as opposed to a real enemy like the U.S. Navy or U.S. Air Force). Counter-insurgency (COIN) in this world view is primarily a conspiracy by the light infantry to direct resources away from the Armor in order to kill it. On the other side of the debate, you have COIN advocates who labor under the impression that high intensity warfare is as dead as disco.

Even if disco came pouring through the Fulda Gap.

My question as an American taxpayer interested in getting the most bang for my defense dollar is this: why are we having this discussion at all? I’m no expert but, given the full range of active and possible threats that this nation faces, don’t we have a need for both high intensity capabilities like armor, motorized infantry, and artillery as well as low intensity capabilities like light infantry? Is it so hard to carve out the necessary resources necessary to sustain both high intensity and low intensity capabilities? Isn’t the logical solution to have some formations dedicated to maintaining high intensity combat skills and other formations dedicated to maintaining low intensity combat skills?

Before he turned to the dark side, Marshal Pétain summed up twentieth century warfare as “artillery conquers, infantry occupies”. This suggests a logical division of responsibilities for any post-World War I land force based on the more general principle that “fire conquers, infantry occupies”. The late Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie wrote in his classic Military Strategy that:

The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

In Wylie’s conception, control ranged from suasion through diplomacy to complete destruction. In a narrower military sense, destruction is a form of control and occupation is a form of control. Consequently, in war you try to control two human targets:

  • you control the fighting enemy i.e. enemy control
  • you control the target population i.e. population control

Last time I checked, every military in history has attempted to control both targets to whatever degree they select.

Read the rest of these posts at Chicago Boyz.

Grand Strategy and Morality

Saturday, August 21st, 2010

Adam Elkus had two brief but thoughtful posts on grand strategy at Rethinking Security that I woulld like to highlight and use as a foil to promote further discussion. I encourage you to read both in full:

Basil Liddell-Hart, Grand Strategy, and Modern Grand Strategy

….This, however, is not the understanding of “grand strategy” we have today. Starting with Edward Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire (Luttwak has written a new book about the Byzantine Empire), grand strategy has been used in books to refer to the overall method of a state for producing security for itself or making itself powerful. Paul Kennedy’s edited compilation Grand Strategies in War and Peace and Rise and Fall of the Great Powers explicitly uses this framework. The William Murray and MacGregor Knox edited compilation The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War also pioneered it. And the Clausewitzian Colin S. Gray has written a great deal on grand strategy as well.

So, what to say? First, the better works on the subject do not treat grand strategies as linear plans but a coherent or at least related set of practices over a long period of time. This is a good approach to take, as it emphasizes that rulers did not instinctively seek to craft a Seldon Foundation-esque master plan for eternity but discovered, through trial and error, a set of practices, ideas, and concepts of operations that worked for a given period of time. Perhaps a very important question (and one that has been alluded to) is what kinds of political cultures tend to produce these sets of practices, and whether they are imposed top-down, generated in a mixed fashion, or come emergently from below


Strategy and “Strategy”

Diplomatic historian Walter McDougall recently wrote this:

The most a wise statesman can do is imagine his ship of state on an infinite sea, with no port behind and no destination ahead, his sole responsibility being to weather the storms certain to come, and keep the ship on an even keel so long as he has the bridge.

I write this after an interesting Twitter conversation with Gunslinger of Ink Spots, which he later excerpted in his own reflections on strategy in America. Gunslinger points out a recurring dynamic. The upper layer of policy and strategy is thin and operational art, the solid bottom foundation, is filling in the void. The problem, however, is that operational art provides a narrow viewpoint to see the world. It is good as a cognitive ordering device for some things, but poor for others. When we try to use it as a strategic device, it magnifies our confusion because the blurs outside of our finely tuned vision are all the more distressing, frightening, and alien to us

Adam is right. Operational excellence is strongly desirable but by itself, insufficient. It is a sword, not a map. Still less is it a crystal ball or moral code. 

Grand strategy is not, in my view, simply just “strategy” on a larger scale and with a longer time line. Strategy is an instrumental activity that unifies ends, ways and means. While grand strategy subsumes that aspect, it also provides ordinary strategy with a moral purpose, perhaps even in some instances, an identity.  Grand strategy explains not just “how” and “for what”, but “why we fight” and imparts to a society the supreme confidence in itself to sustain the will to prevail, even in the face of horrific sacrifice. Grand strategy brings into harmony our complex military and political objectives with the cherished, mythic narrative of a “good society” we conceive ourselves to be, reducing “friction”, “pumping up” our resolve and demoralizing our enemies. Grand strategy is constructive and energizing.

A simple but profound moral argument is a critical element of a grand strategy, to a great extent, it frames the subsequent political and military objectives for which war is waged. Here is one example:

….We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security

Or another:

….I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim?

I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

War is not a game of chess. Without a moral purpose – an Atlantic Charter, a Gettysburg Address, Pope Urban II’s sermon, the Funeral Oration of Pericles – to lend sanction to strategy, a war effort is hamstrung and civil society is left unengaged, perhaps indifferent or even hostile to military action. In the American Civil War, there was a world of difference between the morale and determination of Union states of 1861-1862 and that of late 1864-1865. This turnaround was not solely due to Generals Grant and Sherman, the former of whom was being castigated in the newspapers as a “butcher” up almost until the moment where he was deified in victory, the change pivoted on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address which welded battlefield sacrifice to a higher cause.

Naturally, actions that violate the moral purpose – of the grand strategy or a society’s sense of self – are incredibly, incredibly, damaging. This is why Abu Ghraib was utterly devastating to the American war effort in Iraq. Or why accusations or evidence of high treason are bitterly divisive. They contradict the entire raison d’etre for having a strategy and paralyze a society politically, energizing competing centers of gravity while giving heart to the enemy.

Oddly, highly sophisticated American leaders seem to be blind to this but Osama bin Laden, fanatical and ignorant in his half-baked, obscurantist understanding of Salafi Islam, is keenly aware. His entire “fatwa” declaring al Qaida’s jihad on America, despite being riddled with lies, is a painstaking plea to his fellow Muslims as to the righteousness of his cause, the worthiness of his objectives and the iniquity of the American infidels. Osama may be an evil barbarian, but Bin Laden has far more clarity of purpose and moral certitude  than many USG senior leaders who cannot bring themselves to say who the enemies are that United States is fighting and why ( other than “9/11” – which is like saying we fought Nazi Germany because of Pearl Harbor). Too often they have an indecent haste to cut checks to governments who are allied to our enemies

They are halfhearted and timid in America’s cause while our foes brandish their convictions like they were AK-47’s.

More Afghanistan 2050 Roundtable Posts

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Colonel Gian P. Gentile –  2050: Newly Published History of the American Army’s Disaster in 2016

….Then in early 2016 the war started between the United States and Turkey and Iran over the fate of Kurdistan. Both Turkey and Iran had become fed up with the constant attacks and concomitant separatist movements of their Kurdish populations and decided to ally together and act once and for all to crush Kurdish desires for independence. The Iraqi government requested American assistance and only a short while after pulling its remaining brigades out of Iraq sent in Brigades from the 101st and 82nd Airborne, 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions; many of these Brigades had just returned from deployments to either Iraq or Afghanistan. The outcome was not pretty. American commanders, so long accustomed to training and operational deployments that involved stability and counterinsurgency operations were unable to perform the most basic tasks of combined arms synchronization. The Army’s soldiers too lacked essential individual skills of fire and movement; artillery battalions were unable to mass fires, and even though the Navy and Air Force had substantial amounts of airpower in the region the Army on the ground was unable to coordinate it against an enemy who stood and fought. Operational level logistics quickly collapsed due to the fact that a majority of it had been conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan by contractors, and those contractors refused to deploy again to Iraq to fight the Turks and Iranians. The Army under the zeitgeist of counterinsurgency had bought into Lawrence’s quip and had come to place priority for its senior commanders to be able to build trusting relationships with local populations instead of how to conduct combined arms maneuver….

Historyguy99 – Afghanistan:2050

….An Afghanistan confederation sponsored by the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the United States, survives today, in the old territory of the Northern Alliance and in the enclaves of Tajik, Baluchi, and Hazara. This area encompassed most of the oil and gas reserves and where many discoveries of lithium deposits were found. The foundation for this confederation came from the efforts of the United States to provide what some had dubbed, “Diplomacy by cruise missile.” This strategy is the threat of conventionally assured destruction via missiles and bombs if the Pashtun government violates the rules of the armistice, by undermining or attacking the non-Pashtun areas or sponsoring any kind of global terrorist camps.

The only caveat to this arraignment was that it gave an enormous boost to those elements who believed that they had defeated the infidels. Within two years of the brokered armistice other pan-Islamic fundamentalist groups taking heart in the perceived defeat of modernity, began to strike at the more moderate Gulf States and across Africa. The United States had entered into a period of isolationism brought on by extended long term unemployment and falling revenues that caused a drastic cutback in military spending after the collapse of the dollar as the foreign reserve currency.


Thursday, August 19th, 2010

How I spent my time away up North…..


Swimming, books, boating, hiking….


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