The Collapse of Generalship in the 1960s – Thomas E. Ricks

Synopsis:

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.

Excerpts:

“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 Case for General Theory – Colin S. Gray

Synopsis:

Published near the end of his life Theory of Strategy presents Colin Gray’s general theory of strategy. The theory is split into four components involving ideas relevant to politics, order, complexity, and cohesion, as well as two sub-categories which survey the significance of history and what may be described as strategic intuition.

Excerpts:

“As a general rule, the armed forces need to be able and willing to do it – whatever ‘it’ is – tactically, if operational art, strategy, and high policy are to be feasible.

“Unfortunately, there has been only one long-term pattern in human affairs, and that is a perpetual readiness to resort to conflict. Regardless of the character of the political, religious, and pseudo-religious ideas that have inspired the human historical narrative, this has been its single, and therefore master, theme….A theory of strategy claiming to be general, as here, needs to be housed firmly and plausibly in a resilient basis of causal explanation.

“The search for security must lead inexorably to a quest for strategy. It is solely through strategy that military power can be translated into political influence. This influence is the currency in which security is valued.

“Strategy is in the currency-conversion business, turning military power into political influence. The general theory of strategy is entirely indifferent as to the means employed to achieve this conversion. In practice, of course, the ways in which chosen means are used are often critical to the success or otherwise of the whole conversion enterprise. It can be important to emphasize to an army that, although vitally necessary, it is only a means to an end that is political by definition.

“The theory of war needs to be nested richly within a context of broad understanding of the likely consequences of conflict.

*All excerpts have been taken from Theory of Strategy, Colin S. Gray, Oxford University Press.

The Prerequisites for a Successful Insurgency – David Galula

Synopsis:

David Galula has long been considered the godfather of counterinsurgency warfare theory, and in his landmark book Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice he highlights the requisite components for success in both insurgency as well as counterinsurgency operations. The second chapter of the book examines the prerequisites critical for a robust insurgency to take hold within a state.

Excerpts:

“It follows that any country where the power is invested in an oligarchy, whether indigenous or foreign, is potential ground for a revolutionary war.

“The problem becomes particularly dangerous when the society does not integrate those who, by the level of their education or by their achievements, have proved to belong to the true elite. For it is among this rejected elite that the insurgents can find the indispensable leaders.

“The insurgent is not restricted to the choice of a single cause. Unless he has found an over-all cause, like anticolonialism, which is sufficient in itself because it combines all the political, social, economic, racial, religious, and cultural causes described above, he has much to gain by selecting an assortment of causes especially tailored for the various groups in the society that he is seeking to attract.

The police. The eye and the arm of the government in all matters pertaining to internal order, the police are obviously a key factor in the early stages of an insurgency; they are the first counterinsurgent organization that has to be infiltrated and neutralized. Their efficiency depends on their numerical strength, the competency of their members, their loyalty toward the government, and, last but not least, on the backing they get from the other branches of the government – particularly the judicial system.

“The border areas are a permanent source of weakness for the counterinsurgent whatever his administrative structures, and this advantage is usually exploited by the insurgent, especially in the initial violent stages of the insurgency. By moving from one side of the border to the other, the insurgent is often able to escape pressure or, at least, to complicate operations for his opponent.

*All excerpts have been taken from Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, David Galula, Praeger Security International.

War, Politics, and Power – Karl von Clausewitz

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Synopsis:

War, Politics, and Power is an abridgment of the well-known On War by Carl von Clausewitz. It takes from On War the critical abstractions, and presents them in an intellectually satisfying form. Although On War is seminal and without equal War, Politics, and Power offers the writings of Clausewitz in a tolerable way for those that have either never read Clausewitz before, or for those experienced readers that desire a quick reference book.

Excerpts:

“We are, instead, considering all the combined tendencies of the mind and soul toward military activity, and these we may regard as the essence of military genius. We say ‘combined,’ for military genius consists not of a single capacity for war, but rather of a harmonious combination of powers, in which one may predominate but none may be in opposition.

“War is the province of uncertainty; three-fourths of the things upon which action in war is calculated lie hidden in a fog of uncertainty. A fine penetrating intellect is thus required to feel out the truth with instinctive judgment.

“If we take a comprehensive view of the four components of the atmosphere of war – danger, physical effort, uncertainty, and chance – it is readily understood that a great moral and mental force is needed to cope with these baffling elements. We find historians and military chroniclers describing this force as energy, firmness, staunchness, strength of mind and character.

“A great part of the information in war is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is somewhat doubtful. This requires that an officer possess a certain power of discrimination, which only knowledge of men and things and good judgment can give. The law of probability must be his guide.

“Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction beyond the imagination of those who have not seen war.

*All excerpts have been taken from War, Politics, and Power, Regnery Publishing, Inc.

War by Timetable – AJP Taylor

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Synopsis:

One of the decisive components of the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was the rapidity of mobilization sustained by the Prussian Army. Following the war the mobilization timetables of the great European powers would come to dominate military doctrine. Ultimately, the competitive struggle over mobilization timetables would climax with the outbreak of the First World War.

In his book War by Timetable, A.J.P. Taylor sketches the evolution of the importance of the timetables, and advances the thesis that once the timetables had been initiated there was no reversing them.

Excerpts:

“The essential European balance was between the Franco-Russian or Dual Alliance on the one side and the Triple Alliance, or more realistically the Austro-German Alliance, on the other. Both sets of alliances were strictly defensive if taken literally: they were to operate only in case of attack, and since every great power declared that it was exclusively concerned with defence, war was theoretically impossible.

“It was universal doctrine that speed was essential. Whichever power completed its mobilisation first would strike first and might even win the war before the other side was ready. Hence the time-tables became ever more ingenious and ever more complicated.

“There was little consultation between military planners and civilian statesmen. The statesmen assumed that the general staffs were doing their best to ensure that they would win a war if one came, and there was no speculation on how policy could be seconded by military action. The dogma of the great Clausewitz that ‘war is a continuation of policy by other means’ had lost its hold. War had now become a theoretical operation conducted for its own sake.

“Certainly the Germans did not rely on the Austrians for the defence of German territory in the east. Instead they relied on time – that is to say, the superior speed of their own mobilisation. They assumed that they would have defeated France before the Russians were prepared to move against East Prussia on any great scale at all.

“…there was only one decision which turned the little Balkan conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia into a European war. That was the German decision to start general mobilisation on 31st July, and that was in its turn decisive because of the academic ingenuity with which Schlieffen, now in his grave, had attempted to solve the problem of a two-front war.

*All excerpts have been taken from War by Timetable, Endeavour Press Ltd.

Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency – Roger Trinquier

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Synopsis:

Serving as an infantry officer in myriad airborne units within the French Army, Roger Trinquier conducted counterinsurgency operations throughout the French conflicts in Indochina as well as Algeria. His experience in those conflicts guided his writing of Modern Warfare, which is a book conveying his lessons learned as well as his own theory of counterinsurgency. His methodology for counterinsurgency warfare involves a force architecture dependent on a prodigious organizational institutional apparatus usually outside the means of most states without a war economy in place.

Excerpts:

“…in modern warfare we are not up against just a few armed bands spread across a given territory, but rather against an armed clandestine organization whose essential role is to impose its will upon the population. Victory will be obtained only through the complete destruction of that organization. This is the master concept that must guide us in our study of modern warfare.

“We know that the sine qua non of victory in modern warfare is the unconditional support of a population.

“The war in Indochina and the one in Algeria have demonstrated the basic weapon that permits our enemies to fight effectively with few resources and even to defeat a traditional army. This weapon is terrorism.

“The best way to be well informed consists in introducing our own agents into the organization of the enemy and in corrupting his agents. This is a delicate task that only a few proven agents will be able to accomplish.

“The goal of the guerrilla, during what can be a long period of time, is not so much to obtain local successes as it is to create a climate of insecurity, to compel the forces of order to retire into their most easily defensible areas.

*All excerpts have been taken from Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency, Praeger Security International.

A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind – Martin van Creveld

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Synopsis:

In A History of Strategy, celebrated military theorist Martin van Creveld charts the evolution of strategy throughout its checkered history from antiquity to the present epoch. The survey Creveld offers underscores the paramount ideas of strategy within each era, and pinpoints their ideological prime movers.

Excerpts:

“To restore the power of the offensive and save casualties, Liddell Hart went on to recommend ‘the indirect approach.’ Rather than attacking the enemy head on, he had to be weakened first by having his limbs cut off, his organization disrupted, and the mind of his commander unbalanced.

“Spurred by America’s failure in Vietnam, which was blamed on the strategy of attrition adopted by the US armed forces, the 1980s saw a revival of conventional warfare theory centering on such ideas as maneuver warfare and AirLand Battle. As their names imply, both focused on strategy and the operational art while all but ignoring strategy.

“With Fuller acting as the stimulant, mobility was married to mechanization. The outcome was something known as ‘the battle in depth’: meaning a highly offensive campaign which would be launched not merely along the front but against the enemy’s communications, depots, and command centers as well.

“Later the idea of ‘Massive Retaliation’ was adopted by the incoming Eisenhower Administration. As Secretary of State Alan Dulles declared in a famous speech, the US would not permit the other side to dictate the site and mode of the next war. Instead, any attempt by the Communists to engage in aggression anywhere in the world might be instantly met with means, and at a place, of America’s own choosing.

“…by 1990, at the latest, the Clausewitzian framework was beginning to show serious cracks. As has just been said, it proved incapable of incorporating warfare by, or against, non-state actors. To this point that Clausewitz himself, in the five pages he devoted to the subject, treated guerilla warfare solely as an extension of the struggle between states. At the same time, the question could not be avoided as to whether his insistence on the inherent tendency of war to escalate made him into a reasonable guide to nuclear-armed military establishments, one of whose objectives was deterrence rather than warfighting.

*All excerpts have been taken from A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind, Castalia House.