April 1, 2006  

Bloodless theories, bloody wars

Easy-win concepts crumble in combat

During the Second World War, American and British air-campaign planners attempted to force the Nazi war machine into collapse by attacking crucial links in Germany’s national infrastructure. According to the theory, hitting well-selected individual targets would paralyze entire systems. So, at an enormous cost in lives and aircraft, we went after German rail junctions and ball-bearing plants, engine factories and Romanian oil fields.

We were, in short, executing Effects-Based Operations, or EBO, the current darling among "revolutionary" concepts.

Of course, the Wehrmacht had to be defeated on the ground. The Allied bombing campaign certainly aided in that defeat, but it was not decisive in itself. No matter how many railroad marshalling yards we struck, the Reichsbahn found work-arounds. As for bombing the industrial infrastructure, at the end of the war more than 90 percent of Germany’s production capabilities remained intact (contrary to popular belief), giving the defeated country a launching pad for its postwar "economic miracle." In early 1945, German combat aircraft production was increasing. Those expensive attacks on "vital" nodes helped the war effort but could not have won the war alone had they lasted for a generation. Germany’s lack of home-country petroleum reserves severely hampered the Nazis — but the advance of the Red Army did vastly more to interrupt fuel supplies from the east than did the EBO efforts of the 1940s.

The primary problem we face in preparing for future wars is an intellectually corrupt budgeting and procurement process, a system that forces the services — especially the Navy and Air Force — to make extravagant, impossible-to-fulfill claims for the weapons they wish to buy. It isn’t possible to argue that a system will be "useful." To appear competitive, each system has to be "revolutionary."

Compounding the damage, each of the services (except the Marine Corps) has fallen into the trap of designing its strategy to fit the systems it wants, rather than devising an honest long-term strategy, then pursuing the weapons best-fitted to support that strategy.

We have gotten the process exactly wrong.

No sensible person would argue against the potential benefits of new military technologies — but those technologies must be relevant to genuine wartime needs, not merely sexy platforms for air shows. The services become so mesmerized by their in-progress procurement programs that any challenge to a system’s utility is treated as an attack on the service itself.

The truth is that we lie.

Precision-guided weapons are marvelous additions to our arsenal. They save lives, spare resources and accomplish crucial missions. The fallacy is to believe they can win wars by themselves. The abysmally failed "Shock and Awe" campaign that was supposed to persuade Saddam Hussein to surrender by demonstrating our techno-prowess should be a lesson to us all: Take the enemy’s psychology into account, don’t engage in wishful thinking and worst-case what it takes to defeat your opponent.

Nonetheless, at the Joint Forces Command and in the Air Force, proponents of Effects-Based Operations now suggest that, by striking just the right pressure points, we might bring China to its knees. Well, China’s already on its knees — a position that gives China greater inherent stability than our own top-heavy military and hyper-developed national infrastructure possess. The crucial question in any war is, "What will it really take to force our enemy to surrender?"

We know what it took in Nazi Germany. And in Imperial Japan. To defeat China, we’d have to inflict at least a comparable level of destruction.

EBO isn’t a strategy. It’s a sales pitch.

Yet, EBO also reflects a recurring American delusion — the notion that, if only we can discover it, there must be a formula for winning wars on the cheap. EBO and other schemes for sterilized techno-wars have surprisingly deep roots in our military culture — the American vines were grafted onto diseased European root stocks.

Far from being a brand-new, breakthrough concept, EBO is rooted in the 19th-century cult of Gen. George B. McClellan’s favorite military theorist, Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, the Swiss-born, French-speaking military charlatan who seduced the engineers produced by West Point with his geometrical "the calculus is all" approach to warfare. Presenting himself as the heir to Napoleonic thought, Jomini got the emperor dead wrong (only his Ulm campaign makes any sense in Jominian terms), reflecting, instead, the mannered approach to warfare that was generally prevalent between the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the cannonade at Valmy in 1792.

Although there were many exceptions to the "mannerly war" school of that long 18th century — such as Marshal Turenne’s scorched-earth campaigns in the Rhineland and the life-or-death battlefield ferocity of Frederick the Great — many of the period’s conflicts within Europe were "cabinet wars" about slight alterations to frontiers. (Wars against the Turks were always fought with greater savagery, as were conflicts in the Polish empire, Ukraine and Russia.) Elegant campaigns sought to capture a single fortress, the loss of which might make a series of other fortresses untenable. Reverting to the maneuver dances of Renaissance condotierri, who had no wish to waste the lives of their expensively equipped and trained Landsknechte, post-1648 generalship often consisted in giving greater priority to preserving the king’s regiments than to defeating the king’s enemies. While the brilliant combination of the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene led to one decisive victory at Blenheim, the former’s campaigns in Flanders, although waged brilliantly on the terms of the age, were limited in scope. Most Western European wars fought between the destruction of the Spanish tercios at Rocroi and the rise of Napoleon simply aimed at moving a dynasty’s football a bit to either side of the 50-yard line.

Napoleon revolutionized European warfare with his strategic vision, his ruthlessness and his disregard for the accepted rules. The odd thing is that only Clausewitz, who fought against him, "got" Napoleon. An aide-de-camp to the emperor, Jomini interpreted Napoleon’s campaigns through the long-dead eyes of the marshals of Louis XIV.

This arcane history matters because the U.S. Army never signed up for Clausewitz (not even in the 1980s, when he was quoted more often than he was read). Ours was instinctively a Jominian military when it came to theories of warfare. We did — and do — want checklists, formulae, easy how-to instruction kits. Clausewitz, a soldier of incomparable integrity, provided insights, not answers. Jomini, the hustler in uniform, laid out warfare as a board game, as an engineering problem, ever calculable for those who got the math right. Clausewitz is difficult and unsparing. Jomini is as superficial as a television commercial. Our choice was predetermined.

Clausewitz long remained unknown to American officers, but Jomini had become a must-read for our most-ambitious officers by the end of the 1840s. (Until he was translated, they read him in French; how much they understood is another issue entirely.) Compounding the problem, our military ancestors assumed that the French military was the world’s best model to emulate, missing the fact that Napoleon had been a grand anomaly. Thus, officers such as McClellan not only took Jomini to bed with them, but also tailored their uniforms and trimmed their mustaches to appear as French as possible. (Those well-known Civil War caps of ours were based on French kepis, and the surest measure of a Civil War officer’s vanity, whether he wore blue or gray, was the number of photographs taken of him with a hand burrowed into his tunic à la Napoleon). Even the Prussian triumph in 1870-71 hardly convinced us that the French military might not be the be-all and end-all, and we were still studying French tactics well into the bloodbath of the Great War.

Our Civil War was won by the officers who didn’t read Jomini — or who read and dismissed him. By contrast, the Union’s debacles were often shaped by Jominian thinking. Most notoriously, McClellan thought in terms of campaign geometries and strategic coups de main — EBO, in fact. McClellan fought as an 18th-century French marshal, worried more about the embarrassment of losing than the advantages of victory, building a lovely army then fearing to risk it, and, above all, imagining that the right combination of maneuvers might force a determined Confederacy to surrender.

McClellan’s inept Peninsula Campaign — the worst example in our history of an entire army failing because of a single man’s incompetence — was supposed to present the Confederates with check, then checkmate, by fatally threatening Richmond. Of course, he didn’t reckon on Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, soldiers who were more inclined to fight than to theorize. McClellan’s attempts to "leverage strategic nodes" were all about his own genius, with no regard for a living, thinking, fire-breathing enemy.

Most of the Army of the Potomac’s early campaigns tried to play Jominian chess with the Army of Northern Virginia — which kept knocking over the board. But even the Confederates were not entirely immune to Jomini’s influence. Both sides angled against the other’s capital city, imagining that its possession would inevitably mean victory. Lee’s two invasions of the North — the latter of which forever crippled his army — were Jominian, aimed at outflanking Washington by invading Pennsylvania and making the Army of the Potomac’s position militarily and politically untenable. The Gettysburg Campaign was EBO without smart bombs.

Tactically brilliant and strategically myopic, Lee seems always to have been torn, influenced by his studies and his background as an engineer, yet sensing that the war had to be won by attrition — a strategy he could not afford. Early in the war, when John Singleton Mosby commenced partisan cavalry operations in the Union rear area, Lee worried that the effort would rob him of mounted troops badly needed for reconnaissance and on the battlefield. With some difficulty, Lee was persuaded to allow Mosby to operate with great autonomy, and the Gray Ghost did, indeed, tie down a lopsided number of Union troops with EBO-style raids on crucial nodes, such as rail junctions or supply trains. In the end, though, Lee’s instincts proved right. Mosby was a glorious annoyance but could not deliver winning blows against the enemy. The Confederacy was quantitatively incompetent — and Mosby’s valiant efforts only diluted Lee’s battlefield punch.

The Civil War had to be won by generals who grasped that victory would not come with fallen capital cities, interdicted rail lines or clever maneuvers but only with hard, bloody, relentless fighting. There was was no cheap way to win.

Thereafter, the Army read Jomini intermittently but fought Indians, as well as the Boxers, the Moros and then Pancho Villa. Then the Great War exploded every fashionable theory, from those of Jomini’s French heirs (such as the tragic Ardant du Picq) to the fatal Prussian over-simplification of Clausewitz. Attempts at bold Jominian strokes, such as Winston Churchill’s Gallipoli Campaign, ended in disaster (Liddell-Hart’s "indirect approach" is pure Jomini). For the soldiers involved, it was one of the grimmest wars in history (ending with a devastating influenza epidemic). Military theory dissolved in a bloodbath.

Jomini went into eclipse thereafter, but his spirit had been embedded in the U.S. military. His formulaic approach to making war was a perfect fit for the psychology of the world’s leading industrial power, the country that made progress by making things. Giulio Douhet, Italy’s false prophet of airpower, was a peculiar bastard descendent of Jomini, convinced that airpower alone would decide the next war. (Sound familiar?) Likewise, the American general Billy Mitchell — in some respects a courageous figure — exaggerated the capabilities of airpower as surely as do today’s Air Force theorists.

Mitchell got it partly right — a particularly dangerous situation. As a result, the Army Air Corps got it partly wrong, although it fought heroically. The Allied bombing campaign over Germany in the Second World War was a marriage of American industrial power and 18th-century military thought by way of Jomini: Just press the right node hard enough and Jack will spring out of the box, waving a white flag. In the end, the raw destruction of German and Japanese cities was far more useful in inculcating a useful post-surrender sense of defeat in our enemies than were our costly attacks on strategic nodes. But nothing was as useful as old-fashioned battlefield victories.

Inevitably, the Cold War saw renewed efforts to discover the alchemical formula for easy victory. Far from the great age of American military strategy, this was its nadir. From Mutually Assured Destruction to the Pentomic Army (which appears to be coming back), phony intellectualism obscured a poverty of minds and practical confusion. The most strategically incisive document of the era remains the film "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

The neo-Jominians of the 1950s and early 1960s produced calculations far beyond their ancestor’s scope, certain that they knew precisely how the next war must be waged.

Instead, we got Vietnam.

One could rehash this endless tug of war between our military theorists, who never fail to come up with new clothes for their emperor, insisting that this time they really do know how to win wars cheaply (in terms of blood and bother, if not financially), and the fighting generals and colonels who have to step into the mess the theorists have made and clean it up while the bullets are flying. Contemporary generals such as Mattis and Wallace are the heirs of Sherman and Sheridan — not afraid to fight and ever ready to ride to the sound of the guns. On the other side, you have the theorists, who have them outnumbered, if not outgunned. No matter the empirical evidence, theorists will always insist that they know a better, easier way to wage war than the men who must actually fight it. Compounded by the power of the defense industry and the political momentum of legacy weapons systems, the theorists win. In peacetime.

When the first early man discovered that he could bind a sharp stone to a stick with a leather thong, you can be certain that he turned immediately to his pals across the campfire and shouted, "I’ve just achieved the ultimate revolution in military affairs!"

There’s no end of such revolutions. Only the End of Days will see an end to military innovation. And we’re told, again and again, that the nature of warfare has changed. But the nature of warfare never changes — only its superficial manifestations. On the battlefield, Cain still squares off with Abel. The technologies evolve, but it’s still about killing the enemy until the survivors raise their hands — and mean it.

Even as our soldiers and Marines fight primitive (but intelligent) enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, we’re told that the evidence before our eyes doesn’t really mean anything, that the next war is going to be different, that technology really will do the trick this time. If the United States still exists a hundred years from how, I have no doubt that your great-great-grandchildren will also be assured that, while the theorists were wrong for the past century (or two, or three), they really have it figured out now and that technology really is going to be decisive this time.

Appropriate technologies are essential. But flesh and blood wins wars. The only Effects-Based Operations that mean anything are those that destroy the enemy’s military, the opposing leadership and the population’s collective will. Bombing well-selected targets helps. But only killing wins wars.

Oh, and a last note on Effects-Based Operations: Any combat doctrine that cannot be explained clearly and concisely will fail.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army intelligence officer, a former enlisted soldier and the author of 20 books, including the recent "New Glory, Expanding America’s Global Supremacy."