Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Clausewitz, Mars, and Murphy

In 1831, a Prussian Major-General died at the age of 51 having never commanded an army or even a battlefield during his military service. However, his legacy would be his lifelong effort to examine and even dissect that phenomena that defined his life – war itself. Carl von Clausewitz had served Prussia and briefly Russia through the wars with first revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, studying both these and earlier wars seeking to fully understand war and warfare. The fruits of this effort were written, edited, and re-written throughout his life and would be published after his death by his widow as “Vom Krieg” or “On War.”

Over the fifty-odd years that I have studied military history, war, and warfare, I didn’t actually get around to reading Clausewitz for about half that time. This was actually a good thing since the Michael Howard/Peter Peret translation wasn’t published until 1976 and for my money this is the English-language version you want to use - unless you actually read German and can think like a 19th Century German philosopher.

When I first began to read “On War” during my time in the Naval War College’s Command and Staff Course, was the realization that Clausewitz recognized just how much of a gamble war was and remains. I would summarize his approach very much as, “Okay, guys, going to war is really, really not a good idea primarily because of the infinite number of things that can and will go wrong – and it never, ever comes out the way you expect it to. However, that said and if you are still absolutely determined to go to war – here’s how it works.” It’s almost as if Clausewitz believed that the real name of the God of War wasn’t Mars but rather Murphy.

“On War” has been mined by many people for epigrams and quotes, which were all too often taken out of context in hopes of overawing critics of whatever hobbyhorse was being advocated, much as people borrow from the Bible to prop up a weak argument. But like its subject, “On War” is a complex work whose true value and meaning come from the interactions between the various ideas – just as war is truly defined by the sum total of the interactions between its numerous elements. Despite such abuses, some of the work’s ideas are of particularly relevance as the United States and some friends and allies begin air (and possibly other) military operations over Libya.

The first thought that comes to mind is that starting a war is a lot easier than ending it, something pretty clearly on many peoples’ minds and reflected in much of the public commentary. The corollary second thought is that no war ever ends the way you expected it to when it started and this is true of just about every war I have studied. There are several reasons for this; in particular there is what Clausewitz called friction. Friction is Clausewitz’s label for the innumerable little things that will go wrong when you try to translate a military plan into reality – think of the old children’s rhyme “for want of a nail” and you get a glimmer of the idea. Also, you can try to move any large number of people around and get them to do what you want them to do when and where you want to do it. All of the little problems, questions, confusions, etc. that keep it from happening constitute “friction.”

Clausewitz was also aware of the problem often referred to as “mission creep” in the ongoing discussions on Libya. He knew from experience the reality that a country would go to war with a certain goal in mind – perhaps to seize a city or a province, recapture a city or province lost in the last war, punish a rival ruler or country by destroying all or part of its territory or its armed forces, or just old fashioned raid, loot, and pillage the enemy countryside for a while. This happens because most of the people deciding about whether or not to go to war are politicians – who may at best take the advice of the people who will be doing the fighting, but at least as often do not.

The most important contribution that the generals make in their explanation to the politicians is to set before them the all important relationship between ends and means; “If you give me this much military force, I can do this; if you give me this much more military force, I can do that.” As we have seen in recent years, political leaders who ignore such advice, almost always regret it.

Once the war has begun it either goes better than expected or worse. Either way, this raises a new challenge to the politicians,

– if the war is going worse or is not achieving the goals originally set out for it the politicians must decide whether to settle for less than victory or increase the military forces committed to the war,

– and with the required increase in military forces they will consider whether not the greater forces involved also entails setting out a new and larger goal;

- if the war is going better than expected, there is always the temptation to set out a new and bigger goal to replace the original one and “cash in” on the success. However, seeking an expanded, larger goal may in turn spark increased resistance from an enemy who now can expect to lose more than was originally at risk.

So the politicians (in the Middle East, in Washington, London, Bonn, Rome, Paris, etc) declare that Gadhafi must not be allowed to fly his aircraft over Libya. The generals use a mix of bombers and missiles to destroy the Libyan radars and command and control centers for its air defenses so that their planes may now fly unencumbered and unchallenged as they keep pro-Gadhafi aircraft on the ground. And then the politicians declare, "That’s not what we meant!" Sometimes, you have to believe that the generals all wish they had decided to be professional athletes or street musicians instead of generals.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Televised Revolutions as the Newest Form of Reality TV Show

One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States had just sworn in its new President, Abraham Lincoln, while seven states had declared themselves no longer a part of that country and had already sworn in their own President, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. The United States was already preparing for a civil war that would last for more than four years while the European powers watched from a distance with varying degrees of political, military, and economic interest. The Prussian military dismissed this war when it began as the clash of armed mobs that offered no insights or important new knowledge of war and warfare and thus not worth their attention.

This is approximately the situation now confronting the two sides in Libya. The Libyan Armed Forces, such as they were, have fragmented. Qadhafi has introduced the use of non-Libyan mercenaries to back up his selected units made up of tribal supporters and others with a vested interest in the regime's survival to beat back the growing armed popular revolt. The rebels are made up of angry young men and elements of the fragmenting Libyan armed forces that have defected to the rebels.

In essence, we are presented with two armed mobs confronting each other. The Libyan military, with limited capabilities before this uprising, have some slight advantage in that they are still generally organised and equipped according to the Army table of equipment. This means that they should have the communications, intelligence gathering, and logistics support normally part of the functioning of a regular army. Their weaknesses are that these will not really be fully effective nor fully integrated and linked across the full spectrum of pro-Qadhafi forces.

The rebels in their turn will have only the advantage of larger overall numbers and youthful and/or revolutionary enthusiasm. Unfortunately, they are still a good ways from being able to operate effectively as military forces even at a limited level equivalent to that of the pro-Qadhafi forces. They lack sufficient trained military leadership, reconnaissance, logistics, communications, heavy weapons, and most importantly air support. That said, their numbers, determination, and enthusiasm suggest that ultimately they can and should win this conflict.

The most important need and potentially the one must susceptible to a favorable resolution is the rebel need for effective leadership. Right now it appears that the Libyan revolutionaries/rebels are dependent upon the historical pattern in which previously unknown and unrecognized leaders will emerge on the battlefield as the militants continue to clash with Qadhafi loyalists. These leaders will not fit a single profile, but are likely to be a mix of both trained military officers who have defected to the rebels and previously unsuspected charismatic leaders with a knack for the kind of knockabout combat that will make up most of the conflict.

The biggest challenge for both the rebels and for outside powers wanting to support or at least recognize these anti-Qadhafi forces is that the battlefield leaders that emerge are less likely to have the political skills essential to the creation of a new regimen and political order. This lack will prolong the period of real uncertainty as to the ultimate direction of Libya's revolution. While it will be difficult for the Libyan rebels to pull off a battlefield victory and then a political success in the face of this and other challenges, it will be even more challenging for interested outside powers to make an early identification of these emerging leaders and then to work with them as this new political order itself develops. It's likely to be along process with numerous steps backward and forward as the situation develops first on the battlefield and then in the political arena. It's outcome is not likely to be successfully predicted by either Libyans or the interested powers.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Final Rendezvous

By way of noting the passing this week of Frank Buckles, the last American veteran of the First World War, I offer the following poem written by another American who did not survive that war.

I Have A Rendezvous with Death

Alan Seeger (1888-1916)

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air--
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath--
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear. . .
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

{Alan Seeger graduated from Harvard in 1910 and went to Paris at the start of World War I, enlisting in the French Foreign Legion. He was killed in the Battle of the Somme at Beloy-en-Santerre, on July 4, 1916. His death came before the United States entered the war and his poetry does not yet show the bitter anger that came to mark many of the later poems of those authors who outlived him. I believe the sentiment, however, was shared by many of the participants in that war including many survivors who perhaps thought of every day of life after the war had ended as a gift that would yet someday be taken away and they would finally join their comrades who had fallen during that "war to end all wars."}