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Elkus on Mad Dogs and Military History

Adam Elkus has a lengthy and meaty post at Abu Muqawama, inspired by General Mattis, one that you should really read in full:

The Mattis Book Club

….But while gaining an understanding of the nature of war is useful, there are a lot of things it won’t do. This becomes most apparent in the section of the email where Mattis makes specific claims. Mattis repeatedly states that nothing is new under the sun, makes comparisons across big temporal zones (Alexander the Great in Persian Iraq vs. 2004 iraq), and advances specific analytical arguments about military theories. He does so on the basis of a sweeping generalization that 5,000 years of warfare tells us in aggregate that war has not changed. While this makes for a rousing line, it is also a fairly problematic statement. How do we really know that the nature of war has not changed in 5,000 years?

We should recognize that this is an isolated quote, and strive to not take out of context what was a heartfelt letter to a colleague in need of guidance. But the argument itself—as the cumulative product of a process of self-education in the nature of warfare, does merit some critical analysis. It is part of a humanistic conception of war that stresses the unity of military experience across the ages, and puts the fighting man’s will first. What Mattis dashed off in an email has been repeated by others in journal articles, blog posts, essays, and books. The military historian Brian McAllister Linn, in his seminal study of the Army’s cultures, dubbed it the “heroic” style of war. Linn constrasts this humanistic style this with technocratic Managers, defensive Guardians, and other military tribes with differing values and approaches.

So what do we know about 5,000 years of constant violence?

Often times the answer is that it depends. As my Fuller and Liddell-Hart examples illustrate, the quality of historical accounts is extremely uneven. Military history as a modern discipline only started with Hans Delbruck, a civilian who did some basic math and discovered that many of the most prominent chroniclers of pre-modern warfare were flat-out wrong about ancient history’s greatest battles and campaigns. Anthropologists still argue today about the nature of violence in the evolutionary state of nature and whether it can be mapped to violence in settled states. Second, it may be true that war is war in the Clausewitzian sense. But while it is technically true that Alexander’s Iraqi opponents and Sadrist mobs are both humans seeking to use force to impose their will, this in and of itself is not very useful. There are fairly prominent shifts in the character of politics, the international system, techology, wealth, and society that matter too.  

What constitutes politics is a very important point.

Take for example, the Romans. There was a definite shift between the Early-Middle Republican eras and the Late Republic in elite politics and the socioeconomic conditions upon which Roman assumptions about war and the organization and supply of Legions rested.  Growing inequality of wealth was making it harder for Plebian citizens to afford to muster for a campaign, the need for longserving “professional” Legates to maintain “institutional memory” of the “arts of war” of the Legions expanded even as the highly coveted opportunities for Patricians to command decreased. These trends clashed with what the Romans liked to  believe about themselves and the friction between advocates of reforms (often necessary and practical) and the upholders of  centuries of honored tradition made Roman politics increasingly bitter, dysfunctional and subsequently lethal. The early Romans would have been horrified by Marius and Sulla, to say nothing of Antony and Octavian.

In the end, the politics of the Romans, along with their battlefield experiences, changed how they organized and manned their Legions, why and how they fought the wars as they did and continued to shape Roman warfare as long as the empire lasted. Julius Caesar would have been as startled by Late Antiquity’s semi-barbarian “Roman” Magister Militiums as his own career would have dismayed Decius Mus.

Adam goes on to have some useful things to say about the need for combining historical and quantitative  social science  methodologies and the limitations of each. Delbruck’s overstated skepticism of the ancients aside, sometimes we moderns do not count any better in war or politics – or at times,  even worse

12 Responses to “Elkus on Mad Dogs and Military History”

  1. sseydlitz89 Says:

    Thanks for the link zen. Don’t follow Adam’s linking of Hart, who was demonstrably a charlatan, with Fuller who was not, though. Fuller may have been unsound in his politics, but he was a gifted strategic theorist.
    Agree too as to “bitter, dysfunctional” (and hopelessly corrupt!) politics and the effects it has on strategy, or how it leads to the total inability to conduct strategy at all.  This is the 500 pound gorilla in the room regarding strategic thought in the US today with most afraid to even look in its direction less they compromise themselves in the eyes of the elite.  No wonder that “strategic thought” in the US is mostly faddish doctrinal speculation focused exclusively on tactics . . .  

  2. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Interesting…it is peppered throughout Marine Corps doctrine that war might change, but the nature of war doesn’t.
    I personally take the line that “the nature of war is unchanging” as a tautological truism designed to cause military thinkers to look to the past for continuity, which is surely a good thing.  If you think you have found something in war that has changed, I surmise that you are either right or wrong:
    1.  If you are right, then, by definition, you have not addressed something that relates to the “nature” of war, but rather something that doesn’t relate to the “nature” of war.
    2.  If you are wrong, then the thing you think is so unprecedented actually has occurred in the past.  War’s nature remains unchanging.
    It all comes down to how you define “nature” of war.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Seydlitz,
    I am not certain what Adam has against Fuller, though he’s long disliked Liddell-Hart. 
    Complete agreement with you. The corruption and the need to keep it going and evade the possibility of future punishment is what I think is also driving the creeping authoritarianism of America’s elite (here’s their latest gambit for digital totalitarianism, if you have not seen it) .
    Hi Nate,
    It also comes down to how you want to define “peace” – there are lots of people who want artificially narrow definitions of what constitutes war in order to privilege their (or the partisans of a cause they support) violence from effective retaliation, or to refrain from acknowledging reality (an aggressor engaged in armed conflict) in order  to further personal and domestic political goals

  4. seydlitz89 Says:

    While clear and commonly understood definitions are necessary to effectively communicate ideas and views, in this particular case I think the distinction between “war” and “warfare” also useful.  If we define “war” as a social interaction composed of violence and enmity, chance and probabilities, and its subordination to politics, we notice that we are dealing with non-material elements, what all wars in effect have in common, all essentially “timeless”.  Whereas “warfare”, the way that war is waged at a particular time and place sees the emphasis shift to the “material” elements of people/culture, military and political leadership, all heavily influenced by various specific material aspects which help define the epoch and political relations in question.
    zen, the “latest gambit” falls in line with the Utah Data Center which is scheduled to become fully operational in September.  
    It is difficult for me not to see the strategic nature of all of our military actions since 9/11 as reflections of our own warped political culture, what in Clausewitzian terms is the subordination to “objective” national politics, rather than the use of a “subjective” political instrument . . . which would assume “rationality” . . .

  5. Madhu Says:

    Maybe everyone is so hungry for history because so much of the post 9-11 wars doctrine and discussion has been so ahistorical, according to critics. 
    Personally, I don’t think it’s about history so much as intellectual rigor, another common complaint.
    Anyway, who was the audience for the email? If it was to a profession that is interested in the manly martial virtues, who better to tout a supposedly effete love of reading than man known for having no trouble with the martial part of it all.
    At some point all this theory of war or warfare is meant to be an applied science and the best theorist in the world will *&^% up big time if he or she doesn’t have a good knowledge of the lay of the land in practical terms.
    At some point, it all has to come down to earth from the dreamy dreamy stars….

  6. Madhu Says:

    So, so, so….I really overuse that word.

  7. Madhu Says:

    Also, at some point. Aw, screw it. Time for brunch and all that.

  8. Madhu Says:

    Eh, I still have time before I have to go….
     How do we really know that the nature of war has not changed in 5,000 years?
    Man discovers something, or thinks he does, and then that thing is is new, so war has changed, except it hasn’t, because it is man that discovers. So, is it the discovery that is new or is it that man discovers that is the constant?
    If change is essential to the nature of man–if there is such a thing as the nature of man–then what is change and what is unchanging?
    On 4GW:
    “In fact, Fourth Generation war focuses on the moral level, where it works to convince all parties, neutrals as well as belligerents, that the cause for which a Fourth Generation entity is fighting is morally superior. It turns its state enemies inward against themselves on the moral level, making the political calculations of the mental level irrelevant.”
    “In fact, Fourth Generation war can unravel a state opponent so completely that he ceases to exist. We saw that with the Soviet Union, ….” – William Lind, The American Conservative
     I should have gone into the military theorist business . You can write anything.  

  9. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Madhu,
    So, at this point, I agree with you on the audience factor:)
    Your second observation about “intellectual rigor” is one element lacking in too much of our public discourse post 9-11. Since 9-11, security seems to trump all else—including Liberty. So while we rightly pursue a study of the martial arts and associated history, intellectual rigor is needed in the preservation and maintenance of our Liberty, too.

  10. slapout9 Says:

    I think the definition of war is the problem. It is commonly stated as “violence used to enforce a policy”. But IMO it should expanded to include something on the order of “Any Intentional Act that can damage a System” not just something that falls into the category of explosive/gunpowder type violence.

  11. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    No words can cut through messy reality with exactness. The other 99.999 of anything is guaranteed to escape even the deep cutting CvC called coup d’oeil. This may suggest that the beginning of wisdom is to cut not, lest you be cut. Yet we must cut. To think is to cut: to comprehend anything, something must be cut so it fits the 1180 cm3 confines of the average human brain. That cutting must start somewhere. So we must cut critically, lest we be cut up uncritically.


    Cutting through the topic of war, it’s important to start off knowing that, when you slice through war, you cut through politics. Cutting further, it’s important to know that slicing through warfare is cutting through statecraft. Deeper in, it remains important to know that cutting through strategy is slicing through policy.


    Policy is a subset of statecraft. Statecraft is a subset of politics. From this, it follows that strategy is subset of warfare and hence a subset of statecraft. It follows that warfare is a subset of war and hence a subset of politics. Strategy, warfare, and war, are all subsets, even continuations, of policy, statecraft, and politics, with violence kneaded in as additional leavening.


    Recognizing that war, warfare, or strategy are not things distinct, that they are not vapors or apparitions floating free of the earthly bindings of politics, statecraft, or policy, is the beginning of wisdom. And wisdom starts when you start cutting, where you start reducing messy reality to fit thinking.


    If you don’t cut with care, you commit the sin of the Elder Moltke in 1871: he tried to divorce war from politics. He tried to place meddling politicians like Bismarck in a box labeled BREAK IN CASE OF PEACE. This did not separate war from politics. It only substituted one politics for another: instead of politics by civilian (even if they insist on wearing uniforms as Bismarck did), you get politics by soldier. Staff rides and wargaming, no matter how edifying within their own domain, do not guarantee a better quality politics. The only thing you’re guaranteed when soldiers become open politicians is that one factional interest, ironically the factional interest of the political instrument itself, gets to cut in line ahead of the other political factions.


    Uncut, politics and war, statecraft and warfare, policy and strategy, mingle within that average 1180 cm3

    confines. They are indistinct, as they were in the one physical brain of CvC’s ideal Frederick II. They are one yet can’t be dealt with unless each part is recognized as a thing distinct.


    Policy is an agenda for politics. It is a specific aspiration to use the tools of statecraft to to produce a specific tilt in the balance of power. As such, strategy is violent policy, a specific scheme to use the tools of warfare to violently swing the division of power in favor of one trend over another through war. All strategy is policy but not all policy is strategy.


    Statecraft is the complete set of tools available that can be used to affect politics, the sum total of all methods that can shape the division of power. Warfare is violent statecraft, those tools in the toolbox admixed with violence. All warfare is statecraft but not all statecraft is warfare.


    Politics is the division of power. War is violent politics, the continuation of the division of power with the addition of violence as its other means. All war is politics but not all politics is war.


    I find these as good a places as any to start my own cuts.

  12. larrydunbar Says:

    “No words can cut through messy reality with exactness.”

    Apparently “Lynn” is female, or male and grew up in a fatherless household.

    Words can cut through messy reality with an exactness that a son can never achieve implicitly. As any son raised in the implicit world between unconditional and conditional love can bare witness.

    What a mother can give, a father judges, or vice a versa. 

    I remember talking with one of my father’s most loyal associates (hired-man). I was complaining that whatever I did was considered wrong by my father.

    He told me that, “There were only three ways of doing anything, when it came to my father. The right way, the wrong way, and Tom’s way.”

    As I spent half of my life not doing things “Tom’s” way, there was only one way for me to be in favor of my father, i.e., do things that are judged right. 

    It should be noted that I very seldom did things “Tom’s” way.

    So in the context of what is written about war, there is nothing new under the Sun. The winner gets to write the history, the loser lives it.

    As it seems to be historically that my Orientation has been from Scotland, I think I have been a loser most of my life, ha! 

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