Published in 1988, Colin Gray’s The Geopolitics of Super Power examines the cultural and political dimensions of late Cold War era American geostrategy. Context, as well as comparison guide Gray’s analytical framework – which synthesizes geography and history. According to Gray, political geography catalyzes a vital feature of national strategic culture.
“It is commonplace to observe that dictatorships maintain systemic political strength only in the context of a public aura of success; that is, given that it is the lot of all governments to receive and be responsible for both good and bad news, a dictatorship dares not admit that it has failed.
“The roots of American strategic culture lie in a frontier tradition, an experience and expectation of success in national endeavors, experience with an abundance of resources for defense, a dominant political philosophy of liberal idealism, and a sense of separateness – moral and geostrategic – from the evil doings of the Old World.
“But statecraft is at least as much a matter of discovering and exploiting effective ‘work-arounds’ for national weaknesses and vulnerabilities as it is of exploiting national strengths. Substantially, though not exclusively, the effectiveness of a particular security community in defense of its interests is a function of the quality of strategic guidance provided for sustained collective action.
“Strategic culture – the socially transmitted attitudes, habits, and skills of a community in its approach to issues of national security – is very much the product of geopolitical factors as they are locally interpreted.
“Technical fixes in defense organization, and even changes in military tactics and at the operational level of war, will be unlikely to have the desired effects if they affront important strands in American culture.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Geopolitics of Super Power, The University Press of Kentucky.
The American affection for the operational art vis-à-vis warfighting became obvious during the Vietnam War. Without the strategic character of the conflict rightly defined, military planners – as well as policy makers – tended to confuse the strategic dimensions of ways, means, and ends. In his book on the conflict, Harry G. Summers Jr. analyzes the initial assumptive error, as well as the corresponding strategic confusion which followed.
“Instead of orienting on North Vietnam – the source of war – we turned our attention to the symptom – the guerrilla war in the south. Our new ‘strategy’ of counterinsurgency blinded us to the fact that the guerrilla war was tactical and not strategic.
“Basic to the success of a strategic defensive in pursuit of the negative aim, therefore, is the assumption that time is on your side. But the longer the war progressed the more obvious it became that time was not on our side.
“Because it did not focus on the political aim to be achieved – containment of North Vietnamese expansion – our so-called strategy was never a strategy at all. At best it could be called a kind of grand tactics.
“Since the insurgency itself was a tactical screen masking North Vietnam’s real objectives (the conquest of South Vietnam), our counterinsurgency operations could only be tactical, no matter what we called them.
“Our failure as military professionals to judge the true nature of the Vietnam war had a profound effect. It resulted in confusion throughout the national security establishment over tactics, grand tactics and strategy, a confusion that continues to this day.
*All excerpts have been taken from On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Presidio Press.
Colin Gray’s analysis of the so-called strategic dimension of conflict is a multilayered approach – which recognizes at least seventeen dimensions of strategy. According to Gray, the essentials of human culture animate the vital center of the strategic dimension. Further, Gray’s strategic dimension synthesizes with John Keegan’s cultural prime mover of strategy notion for a more refined recognition of how assumptions influence strategic thinking.
“Politicians and their advisers are experts at crafting policy, just as soldiers have traditionally been viewed as the professionals in ‘the management of violence.’ Who is it, though, that patrols the no-man’s land between politics and military force? That is the realm where strategists should roam.
“Although it may appear unduly pessimistic, even uncharitable, to say it, the evidence of history strongly suggests that we will fail to anticipate the strategic ideas some of our enemies will employ. As a result, we will be embarrassed and, possibly, even defeated occasionally. Such is strategic history.
“Those theorists and officials who persistently confuse the character of war, which is always changing, with the nature of war, which cannot alter, are responsible for creating confusion and raising false expectations.
“Americans must be true to their culture. The conduct of a technological style of warfare is mandated by American circumstances and preferences: It is what Americans do well, and it is usually sensible to go with one’s strengths. The danger is that America’s romance with high technology might distort its understanding of war and strategy.
“In the twentieth century, Germany proved itself to be exceptionally good at fighting. But it repeatedly fell in its inability to translate that combat prowess into an ability to win wars. A world community uneasily dependent upon America’s strategic performance as sheriff has to hope that their guardian state will not reveal any like tendency to win battles but lose wars. That community must also hope that America will remember that the purpose of war is not victory, but the achievement of a condition of peace with security superior to the pre-war context.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Sheriff: America’s Defense of the New World Order, The University Press of Kentucky.
Michael A. Palmer chronicles the rise of twentieth century Islamism – i.e. the militant politicized form of Islam – in his book the The Last Crusade, and finds its origins in the myriad failures of Arab nationalism. According to Palmer, local nationalism was inspired by European geopolitics in the region, and Islamism by the waning of such nationalism following episodes of Arab weakness vis-à-vis the West – particularly concerning Israel.
“The Americans gained their first penetration into the Middle East oil market in 1928, although at the cost of abandoning its Open Door principle. On July 31, 1928, British, Dutch, French, and American oil companies signed the famous ‘Red Line Agreement,’ establishing a cartel controlling oil exploration and production in the region.
“From 1920 to 1939 oil production had increased dramatically, by 900 percent, largely because of American involvement. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain had joined Persia as major producers. In 1920 the United States produced about 95 percent of the world’s oil; by 1939 that number had fallen to about 86 percent.
“Nixon shaped a policy that would avoid committing American forces, most especially ground troops. His Nixon Doctrine turned responsibility for regional defense to local states. In Indochina this policy became known as ‘Vietnamization’; in the Persian Gulf it took the form of the ‘Twin Pillars,’ or a reliance on Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“After 1975 no one viewed Lebanon as a template for sectarian coexistence. The Lebanese experiences also marked the shift in the nature of terrorists acts – from those employed by a ‘national liberation front’ organization, such as the PLO, to those employed by Islamic fundamentalists.
“Arafat had supported Hussein and the invasion of Kuwait, and with the Iraqis’ collapse the Palestinians were persona non grata in many of the gulf states, especially Kuwait. The first Intifada, which had begun in 1987, came to an abrupt end in 1991.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Last Crusade: Americanism and the Islamic Reformation, Potomac Books, Inc.
George Kennan’s book Russia and the West chronicles early Soviet international politics under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin as well as Joseph Stalin. Russian diplomacy vis-à-vis the West is the emphasis, and Kennan offers keen analysis concerning Soviet intentionality. In his final chapter “Keeping a World Intact,” Kennan endeavors to harmonize points of friction with geopolitical realism to construct a workable American/Soviet diplomatic model for the Cold War.
“Stalin was a dangerous man to the end; and almost to the end, he remained unchallenged in his authority. But the men around him served him, throughout those final years, in a sullen, guarded silence, expecting nothing and waiting only for the hand of Time to take him.
“By this opposition to the very institutions of the West, the Russian Communists offered to the will of the Western peoples a species of defiance for which they have had no patent other than their own unlimited intellectual arrogance.
“Russian governments have always been difficult governments to do business with. This is nothing new in kind – if anything is new about it – it is only a matter of degree.
“People who have only enemies don’t know what complications are; for that, you have to have friends; and these, the Soviet government, thank God, now has.
“The first to go, in my opinion, should be self-idealization and the search for absolutes in world affairs: for absolute security, absolute amity, absolute harmony. We are a strong nation, wielding great power. We cannot help wielding this power. It comes to us by virtue of our sheer size and strength, whether we wish it or not.
*All excerpts have been taken from Russia and the West: Under Lenin and Stalin, Mentor Book.
The grand design behind the American occupation of Cuba was to remake Cuban society into a cultural mirror image of the United States. White Progressive middle-class America was the model which arch Progressive Leonard Wood adopted for his system of governance. Ultimately, most of Wood’s reforms had a waning existence following his departure as centuries old Cuban culture reasserted itself. In his book on America’s early twentieth century armed interventions in the Caribbean, Lester Langley chronicles the political/military dynamics of the American occupation of Cuba.
“When the vice-president of the provisional government, Domingo Mendez Capote, arrived in Washington in May 1898 to ascertain American policy, he learned that Cuban and Spanish conservatives were already pressing the Americans to remain after the Spanish surrender.
“The American military in Cuba was, by 1901, a skeletal force, its numbers drastically reduced since Wood became military governor in December 1899. Following the war, the Americans had paid off the Cuban rebels (at roughly seventy-five dollars per man) and created a Rural Guard, presumably apolitical, that undertook the task of policing the countryside and maintaining order in the towns.
“Preparation of Cuba for independence meant, of course, an educational system worthy of a young republic… The model curriculum, written by an officer on the governor’s staff, was patterned on the ‘Ohio Plan’ and emphasized preparation for citizenship and the acquisition of skills or the learning of a trade. Hispanic tradition was intentionally denigrated.
“Wood was convinced that filth explained Cuba’s epidemics of yellow fever, though an eccentric Cuban scientist (of Scottish ancestry), Dr. Carlos Findlay, argued correctly that the culprit was the mosquito. Wood’s vigorous sanitary campaign nonetheless probably helped to control another Cuban scourge, typhoid.
“When McKinley or Root or Wood spoke of Cuba, their comments were laced with references to its ‘special importance’ or ‘strategic position’ in the American geopolitical scheme. Cuba was vital and vulnerable – vulnerable to European machinations.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898-1934, SR Books.
The American institutional paradigm of strategic mediocrity at the highest levels of command became most recognized during the Vietnam War. Journalist Thomas E. Ricks believes the strategic incapacity is rooted in careerism, bureaucratization, byzantine promotion practices, institutional arrogance, and negligence at finding fault within the high command. According to Ricks, post-Vietnam American generalship has fared no better, because the military – particularly the Army – has focused on perfecting operational rather than strategic command.
“A popular myth, persisting even in today’s military, is that senior civilians were too involved in the handling of the war. In fact, the problem was not that civilians participated too much in decision making but that the senior military leaders participated too little. President Johnson, Maxwell Taylor, and Robert McNamara treated the Joint Chiefs of Staff not as military advisers but as a political impediment, a hurdle to be overcome, through deception if necessary. They wanted to keep the Chiefs on board with policy without keeping them involved in making it or even necessarily informed about it.
“Unlike FDR, Johnson never really explained his war to the nation. ‘At no time that I was aware,’ wrote Joseph Alsop, who became almost the last ‘hawk’ among prominent journalists, ‘did President Johnson or his advisers seek to prepare the American people for the grim consequences of a protracted military battle, nor did they adequately explain to the public the reasons for the fight.’ Neither the president nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff did their duty during the Vietnam War.
“Pentagon analyst Thomas Thayer recalled being told by the French defense attaché in Saigon – a veteran of fighting in Vietnam who was chosen for the diplomatic post because of his excellent English – that during the first eighteen months of his assignment, only one American had visited him to inquire about the lessons the French might have to share. Even more strikingly, when Army Special Forces troops under a CIA program began training villagers to defend themselves, the program worked, with armed locals posting ‘a record of almost unbroken success’ against the Viet Cong… Maxwell Taylor, by then the American ambassador, directed the CIA to turn the program over to the U.S. military, resulting in a major drop in the effectiveness of the mission.
“Firing senior officers would have been seen as a confession of failure. Furthermore, in a hazy war with a muddled strategy, what constituted success was less clear, so rewarding it and punishing failure became even more difficult. The result was that by the arrival of the Vietnam War, firing a general officer amounted to an act of dissent, a public questioning of the way the Army worked, because it involved someone who had risen through a demanding process over two decades. To say that he was not fit for a position was tantamount to a rejection of the process that had produced him. So where relief was once a sign that the system was working as expected – rewarding success and punishing failure – it had become seen inside the Army as a hostile critique of the system.
“The relatively new technology of the helicopter might have enabled generals to try to escape their roles. Instead of trying to improve strategy, generals and colonels climbed into aircraft and became what one general called ‘squad leaders in the sky.’ They found themselves in a situation where the fundamental task of a general – to understand the nature of the fight and adjust his force to it – may have been all but undoable. When strategy becomes inexplicable, the natural tendency is to retreat into tactics.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, Penguin Group LLC.
The Real War presents Richard Nixon’s strategic philosophy for the Cold War. His chapter ‘The Vietnam Syndrome’ keenly describes the cerebral influence the Vietnam War had on America, and its allies. The chapter also offers Nixon’s perspective on how the Vietnam War was directed before he became president, as well as presenting his own objectives for the war while he was president.
“If South Vietnam had only had to contend with invasion and infiltration from the North across the forty-mile-long DMZ, it could have done so without the assistance of American forces… But Hanoi was able to use sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia as staging grounds for its assault on South Vietnam. In addition to making hit-and-run tactics possible, these lengthened the border the South had to defend from 40 to 640 miles, not counting indentations.
“Diem’s fall was followed by political instability and chaos in South Vietnam, and the event had repercussions all over Asia as well. President Ayub Khan of Pakistan told me a few months later, ‘Diem’s murder meant three things to many Asian leaders: that it is dangerous to be a friend of the United States; that it pays to be neutral; and that sometimes it helps to be an enemy.
“We tried to wage a conventional war against an enemy who was fighting an unconventional war. We tried to mold the South Vietnamese Army into a large-scale conventional force while the principal threat was still from guerrilla forces, which called for the sort of smaller-unit, local-force response that had proved so successful in Malaya. American military policy-makers tended to downplay the subtler political and psychological aspects of guerrilla war, trying instead to win by throwing massive quantities of men and arms at the objective. And then, the impact even of this was diluted by increasing American pressure gradually rather than suddenly, thus giving the enemy time to adapt.
“At the heart of the Nixon Doctrine is the premise that countries threatened by communist aggression must take the primary responsibility for their own defense. This does not mean that U.S. forces have no military role; what it does mean is that threatened countries have to be willing to bear the primary burden of supplying the manpower.
“After their decisive defeat on the ground by South Vietnamese forces in the spring offensive and the destruction of their war-making capabilities by the December bombing, the North Vietnamese knew that militarily they were up against almost impossible odds. As the South Vietnamese economy continued to prosper far more than that of the North, Hanoi’s communist ideology had less and less appeal. Thieu’s Land to the Tiller program, for example, had reduced tenancy from 60 to 7 percent by 1973, a truly revolutionary development that undercut the communists’ argument that the government allied itself with the rich and oppressed the people. Also, the North Vietnamese knew that both the Soviets and the Chinese had a stake in their new relationship with us and might not be willing to endanger that relationship by providing military supplies in excess of those allowed by the Paris peace agreement of January 1973.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Real War, Warner Books Inc.
The proposal for a Strategic Services Command (STRATSERCOM) was the brainchild of E.C. Meyer in the 1980s following the Desert One debacle in Iran. The proposal sought to create an independent Special Operations Forces (SOF) full four-star unified command with a re-development of the Tier system. At the time the proposal was informally rejected, but later many of the recommendations would be adopted as law by the United States Congress in the 1990s – thereby granting exceptional autonomy to the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).
“The budget for special operations grew dramatically. In 1981, the Army special operations budget was $32 million. By 1983 it had risen to $440 million and by 1988, the total SOF budget was approximately $2.5 billion (though it represented only 1 percent of the total Department of Defense budget).
“The original concept was that each of the two Ranger battalions would rotate as a Tier One unit under the Army Component Commander as it assumed the six-week alert posture for Commanding General JSOC. The remaining battalion would be retained in Tier Two status.
“What General Meyer proposed was a unique concept with dramatic implications for DOD organizations. The rejection of the proposition by those required to change was completely consistent with DOD’s history, particularly its reaction towards special operations issues… STRATSERCOM was a child of his own vision of the world, a world that would require a form of support that the DOD was not capable of providing without a STRATSERCOM type of headquarters. He translated his vision into a deceptively simple graph that became the heart of the STRATSERCOM rationale.
“…objections that were raised were very general in nature. The consistent thread was concern that the force would be employed in a CINCs theater without prior coordination and would not work through the existing CINC structure. All agreed that the problems of low intensity combat in general and counter-terrorism specifically had to be addressed. USEUCOM endorsed the concept provided that deployed forces would report to him when in theater. No other CINC formally responded.
“Service staffs had expressed great concern over the force assignment issue. The Service Chiefs viewed the ‘assignment’ of forces to STRATSERCOM as a dangerous precedent, the Navy in particular. Service staffs informally recommended non-concurrence based on the possibility that future CINCs could demand the same command arrangements with concomitant loss of service control of component forces.
*All excerpts have been taken from Phoenix Rising: From the Ashes of Desert One to the Rebirth of U.S. Special Operations, Casemate Publishers.
The immediate post World War Two strategic landscape in the United States was dominated by the development of nuclear weapons, and their application. In his book on American strategic thought, Russell Weigley includes a chapter on the ascendancy of the civilian national security establishment amid the primacy of the early nuclear age. As the Cold War progressed, civilian ‘strategy intellectuals’ became influential on American strategic doctrine.
“Choosing among weapons systems, however, necessarily required judgments among various possible strategies. Making choices among future weapons systems and strategies would necessarily also involve choices among forms of military organization. And choices involving strategy and organization would carry the analysis far into the realms of policy. The expanded form of operations analysis which began with the effort to analyze the uses of future as well as existing weapons came to be called ‘systems analysis.’
“As Kissinger saw it, the strategy of deterrence when expressed as the doctrine of massive retaliation was the strategy that really forswore the diplomatic and strategic initiative. It amounted to a renunciation of the use of force except to counter the most unambiguous forms of aggression, because the weapons to be employed were too horrendous to be fired in any less circumstances.
“The search for a new strategic doctrine must not be confused with the search for a better weapons technology and with technical answers to technical questions. To seek refuge in technology from hard problems of strategy and policy was already another dangerous American tendency, fostered by the pragmatic qualities of the American character and by the complexity of nuclear-age technology.
“More than Ridgway, Taylor renewed the argument that without adequate capacities for limited war, America not only would face defensive disadvantages but would be unable to seize initiatives, unable to secure positive advantages that must be won in the battle for a better world. Massive retaliation, General Taylor reiterated, ‘could offer our leaders only two choices, the initiation of general nuclear war or compromise and retreat.’ A strategy of flexible response, in contrast, ‘would recognize that it is just as necessary to deter or win quickly a limited war as to deter general war.
“Therefore Morgenstern recommended a new application of sea power: to use sea power to ensure an invulnerable capacity for nuclear retaliation against the enemy’s homeland. He recommended the acceleration and enlargement of the Polaris program, so that nuclear submarines in constant movement could serve to launch the American missile force…The endurance capacity of nuclear engines would minimize the dependence of both submarines and seaplanes on fixed bases; except for occasional refueling, their supplies could be replenished from ships themselves moving in random patterns.
*All excerpts have been taken from The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, Russell Weigley, Indiana University Press.