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[by Lynn Rees]

One of the daily gripes the Norman Conquest (or perhaps Marcus Furius Camillius) inflicts on me is how Latinite words in English have higher status than English’s own native proto-Germanic words. This often leaves English with one proto-Germanic word with a viscerally concrete meaning rooted in the core words native English-speakers learn as small children and one vaguer but fancier Latin word learned later in life and used to signal high falutiness.

One example of this fashion-induced duplication that annoys me is these two pairs:

  • power in place of strength
  • control in place of grip

Consider Rear Admiral Joseph Caldwell  (J.C.) Wylie, Jr., United States Navy (if you don’t know who J. C. Wylie is, Carl von Clausewitz was the Prussian Wylie). Wylie writes in his criminally neglected Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control:

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.

From this insight, I’ve come to think of the heart of strategy (an even hazier Greek word revived and latinized by the French) as a three-way interplay between:

  • purpose: a sentiment about how conditions should change
  • power: a possibility for how conditions could change
  • control: a certainty that conditions will change

But the many meanings of power and control can be bent to serve hide how easily this three way interplay can be grasped. One possible rework uses more bedrock English:

  • goal: how things should be
  • strength: how things could be
  • grip: how things will be

This lets strategy be physically grasped:

  1. The mind thinks of a goal.
  2. It tells its muscles to act to reach that goal.
  3. The muscles try to grip some thing.
  4. Depending on what the muscles grasp, their grip is tightened or loosened in the shape needed to grasp it.
  5. The strength of the muscles may be too little or too much to first get and then keep the needed grip.
  6. If the mind’s need to reach a goal is strong enough, it may have its muscles keep trying to get a grip despite lacking the needed strength.
  7. If the mind’s need to reach a goal is weak enough, it may release its grip even if its muscles have enough strength to hold on.

History is packed with those with enough power strength to reach their goals but who could never get control a grip strong enough to reach them. Reach exceeded grasp.

13 Responses to “Grip”

  1. Critt Jarvus Says:

    My, my, my… Brilliant! … and I know why, what makes this so.

    “The mind thinks of a goal…,”

    Language matters.

    Driving today. I’ll complete this tonight.

    Thanks, Lynn.

  2. seydlitz89 Says:

    Hi Lynn.
    The further refinement of an old argument imo . . .
    “the Prussian Wylie”?  Had to laugh at that.  Why not “the American Svechin”?  
    We seem to be losing what Wylie’s original intent was . . . but then given the level of hopeless confusion in US strategic thinking today . . .

  3. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Hi seydlitz89:


    Indeed. Nick Prime was digging through the material the online Wylie community has produced and flagged your post recently. Not surprising. The 2010 online Wylie community was the mighty NerveAgent, you, and me.


    You’ll be happy to hear Prime has found a robust correspondence carried on between Wylie and his buddy Basil Liddell-Hart. BHL would even stay with the Wylies when he’d come over to screw up strategic thinking on this side of the Atlantic. Here’s a visual of what having BHL stay at the House of War overnight might look like:



    “Prussian Wylie” plays on the title of NerveAgent’s pioneering J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz? Read it as “Prussian Wylie?” if you like.


    There’s long miles to go before Wylie studies reach a schism between Wylie originalism and the Living Wylie. Wylie’s post-mortem career is still at the “Who’s J.C. Wylie?” stage.

  4. seydlitz89 Says:

    Agree on Nerveagent’s post.  I think that might have been the inspiration for my own, although I don’t remember now.  Also agree on BHL Hart, since he would be my candidate for “the greatest charlatan in strategic studies of the 20th Century”.
    My point regarding Wylie is that with the reprinting of his classic, we need to consider what his original intention was . . . to start a dialogue/dialectic of what strategy, or rather strategic theory, actually is . . . which would begin with a critical approach to his book . . .  The greatest obstacle to that is the current state of our political relations . . . from a Clausewitzian perspective of course.

  5. J.ScottShipman Says:

    If memory serves, JCW said his purpose was to start a conversation on the development of a General Theory of strategy. He mused more than once (in the USNI version) that since no one responded/rebutted, they either did not read the book (most likely) or saw no utility. 
    In my reading, I’ve concluded he did provide a good scaffold for a General Theory; identifying the variables and synthesizing the four prevailing notions of strategy. Recently I’ve begun to deconstruct his observations/ideas, to isolate the variables and examine their unique “spectrum” (to borrow a phrase from Lynn’s work on Boyd’s OODA). 

  6. slapout9 Says:

    Targeting beats Strategy! Our enemies know this and use it against us on a regular basis, we have yet to figure this out.

  7. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    How does someone determine if the United States of America and not the Republic of Botswana is their enemy and should be the target of their ends and means?




    To be American is to constantly reinvent what was obvious to us in the past, only now more expensively. Here’s the same thing I just said only now said by the “bastard brat of a Scotch peddler” who grew up in the Persian Gulf of the 18C:

    IN DISQUISITIONS of every kind, there are certain primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence which, antecedent to all reflection or combination, commands the assent of the mind. Where it produces not this effect, it must proceed either from some defect or disorder in the organs of perception, or from the influence of some strong interest, or passion, or prejudice. Of this nature are the maxims in geometry, that “the whole is greater than its part; things equal to the same are equal to one another; two straight lines cannot enclose a space; and all right angles are equal to each other.” Of the same nature are these other maxims in ethics and politics, that there cannot be an effect without a cause; that the means ought to be proportioned to the end; that every power ought to be commensurate with its object; that there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose which is itself incapable of limitation. And there are other truths in the two latter sciences which, if they cannot pretend to rank in the class of axioms, are yet such direct inferences from them, and so obvious in themselves, and so agreeable to the natural and unsophisticated dictates of common-sense, that they challenge the assent of a sound and unbiased mind, with a degree of force and conviction almost equally irresistible.


    The objects of geometrical inquiry are so entirely abstracted from those pursuits which stir up and put in motion the unruly passions of the human heart, that mankind, without difficulty, adopt not only the more simple theorems of the science, but even those abstruse paradoxes which, however they may appear susceptible of demonstration, are at variance with the natural conceptions which the mind, without the aid of philosophy, would be led to entertain upon the subject. The INFINITE DIVISIBILITY of matter, or, in other words, the INFINITE divisibility of a FINITE thing, extending even to the minutest atom, is a point agreed among geometricians, though not less incomprehensible to common-sense than any of those mysteries in religion, against which the batteries of infidelity have been so industriously leveled.


    But in the sciences of morals and politics, men are found far less tractable. To a certain degree, it is right and useful that this should be the case. Caution and investigation are a necessary armor against error and imposition. But this untractableness may be carried too far, and may degenerate into obstinacy, perverseness, or disingenuity. Though it cannot be pretended that the principles of moral and political knowledge have, in general, the same degree of certainty with those of the mathematics, yet they have much better claims in this respect than, to judge from the conduct of men in particular situations, we should be disposed to allow them. The obscurity is much oftener in the passions and prejudices of the reasoner than in the subject. Men, upon too many occasions, do not give their own understandings fair play; but, yielding to some untoward bias, they entangle themselves in words and confound themselves in subtleties.

    That passage should be violently and painfully stapled to the forehead of any American involved in national defense leadership. Might get fewer young Americans killed at the start of the next war. No blood for sugar.

  8. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Returning to original topic…


    I agree: Wylie was trying to start an adult conversation on strategy. He published his book in a year (1967) not noted for adult conversations on anything. A critical Wylie approach would have to examine the text itself. Right now secondary Wylie material is so sparse that even I’ve been sent previously unknown Wylie primary sources because there was few other Wylie venues on the Web to send them to (now they can send them to Scott).


    I may have discussed this with Scott before but I don’t even know if there’s a collection of J.C. Wylie personal papers somewhere. I’m not sure if he had an acolyte. He had kids but I don’t know if there’s a Mary Ellen among them. This may strike some as too big a gap to close but not to we happy few here at ZP. We have one of these.


    P.S. seydlitz89:


    Have you ever examined any possible relationship between your ideas on cohesion and the Maghrebi historian ibn Khuldun’s idea of asibiyya

  9. slapout9 Says:

    Lynn C. Rees,
    Politics determines who the enemy is……. not Strategy! Which is why the most fundamental question a General must answer is what Target to apply military force against in order to achieve the Political Mission. 

  10. seydlitz89 Says:

    Wasn’t aware of asibiyya, but it seems very close to “moral cohesion” although with a certain amount of “organic” determinism that the Clausewitzian concept does not assume.  Thanks for that . . .
    Don’t see where Wylie’s book is going to have an actual general theory articulated, and that wasn’t his intention, rather to get the ball rolling.  In this vein, he says some very provocative things in an attempt imo to trigger a debate.  A lot of what Wylie does say is actually part of Clausewitz’s general theory (cumulative/sequential strategies, “equilibrium”, culmination point), so my question is what is exactly new here?  The concept of “control” is interesting, but there are problems with it and if modified I think it would fit within a larger Clausewitzian general theory context.  In all one has to deal with all the BHL Hart stuff first . . . Then of course there are our own unstated/unconscious strategic assumptions we have as early 21st Century Americans as reflected imo by our massive political dysfunctions.  A mix of international strategic theory perspectives (South Asian, East Asian, African, South American, European, Russian, etc) would be advisable.   

  11. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Don’t forget the oral history.

  12. larrydunbar Says:

    From seydlitz89’s post on MilPub.


    “The second is the one with which I take particular issue: the aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy. ”

    I agree with Wylie on this one. But strategically it’s not about how to control the enemy, it’s what you are trying to control strategically. I think, in control’s relationship to war, what you are trying to control is velocity. It’s not so much in a heart beat, but when the enemy can’t move, the war is over. Of course then there is the problem of peace, as the change in distance over the change in time begins again.


  13. Grurray Says:

    “what you are trying to control is velocity”
    “From a military perspective, an army breaks morally and mentally before it breaks physically” – Lynn C. Rees
    So to riff off your analogy a little bit more, it isn’t so much velocity you want to control, but acceleration.
    I’m thinking of the recent revelations of the Stuxnet virus now:


    “the worm also subtly increased the pressure on spinning centrifuges while showing the control room that everything appeared normal by replaying recordings of the plant’s protection system values while the attack occurred.
    The intended effect was not destroying centrifuges, but “reducing lifetime of Iran’s centrifuges and making the Iranians’ fancy control systems appear beyond their understanding,” Langer writes.”

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