Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Review: Strategy

Following closely upon my reading of The First World War by John Keegan, I decided to read B(asil) H. Liddell Hart's book, Strategy. Hart, an English army captain, was a military historian and strategist who had a great influence upon the military campaigns of Germany and the Allies during World War II.

World War I demonstrated the problematic nature of direct assault upon one's enemies, especially in the era of automatic weapons and industrialized warfare--in short, if you're an attacker, and you aim for the direct approach in going for your target, you make it easier for the enemy to defend against you and cut you to pieces because he knows exactly what you want and where you're going, and so can concentrate all of his forces in that one particular spot.

Here's how Hart puts it in his preface:

When...I first came to perceive the superiority of the indirect over the direct approach, I was looking merely for light upon strategy. With deepened reflection, however I began to realize that the indirect approach had a much wider application--that it was a law of life in all spheres: a truth of philosophy. Its fulfillment was seen to be a key to the practical achievement in dealing with any problem where the human factor predominates, and a conflict of wills tends to spring from an underlying concern for interests. In all such cases, the direct assault of new ideas provokes a stubborn resistance, thus intensifying the difficulty of producing a change of outlook. Conversion is achieved more easily and rapidly by unsuspected infiltration of a different idea or by an argument that turns the flank of instinctive opposition.

The first three parts of the book uncover examples of successful indirect warfare throughout European history, starting with the Greeks, and moving forward to World War II. For instance, the conquest of Sparta by the Theban general Epaminondas is covered, as is the overall military work of Alexander the Great. One of the most interesting and entertaining sections is the history of the career of the Byzantine general Belisarius. Belisarius managed to achieve many victories under less-than-ideal conditions, for example, when the Emperor Justinian deprived him of reinforcements for fear that the general might become too popular or a political rival, or on more than one occasion when he was outnumbered, but still managed to overcome his enemies. One of the few times Belisarius lost was when he allowed himself to be persuaded by his officers to attack the enemy directly.

Unlike Victor Davis Hanson, a civilian, Hart is more concerned with describing strategic or tactical victories and is not so concerned with the particular moral codes advanced by said victories. For instance, Hart offers up his admiration for Hitler's strategic and tactical insights--which are obvious, given his initial successess, while Hanson is more concerned about the victory of "the good."

One thing that was curious to me, as a civilian, was Hart's de-emphasis on battle per se. This differs from Clausewitz, one of the great European theorists of war, who believed the primary canon of military doctrine was "the destruction of the enemy's main forces on the battlefield." Instead, as part of his indirect approach, Hart's idea is that "the true aim is not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve this."

Hart also addresses matters of "grand strategy," which is the bigger picture of national policy, of which military force is but a part. He describes the aim of war as simply "to attain a better peace," meaning your nation ends up in a better situation (however you care to define it) after the war than you were before it. This view of grand strategy includes such no-duh ideas as not wearing yourself out so badly from war that you're unable to enjoy the peace once the war is concluded. Another bright idea Hart advances is not engaging in acts of war so egregious that they are bound to backfire on you once the peace is settled. He cites as one example the "strategic" bombing of civilian targets like Tokyo and Dresden, which did not necessarily advance the Allies' cause, break the will of the enemy, or leave the devastated populations in a state of civilization after the conflict.

Hart was writing in the midst of the Cold War, but his views on strategy are as relevant today as they were then. For instance, he devotes a chapter to "guerilla war," which is for all practical purposes what we've been fighting in Iraq for the last five years. Hart seems to have been particularly interested in this aspect of warfare, as he was friends with T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"), and Lawrence's tactics were taught and spread throughout the world by Winston Churchill as a means of combatting the Axis. Hart's comments are prophetic for our own times:

[T]he prospects and progress of a guerrilla movement depend on the attitude of the people in the area where the struggle takes place--on their willingness to aid it by providing information and supplies to the guerrillas by withholding information from the occupying force while helping to hide the guerrillas.

Since 2003, the U.S. military had to overcome the willingness of the Iraqis to hide and support the insurgents. New tactics, plus "the surge," have done much to reduce violence in that country. When the population trusts the "occupying force" more than the insurgents, the insurgency crumbles.

So who is the "audience" for Hart's work? I would recommend it--though I doubt he'd read it--to Barack Obama or any other incoming U.S. President. Generals, of course, should read it, as should the officer corps, and perhaps NCOs and the whole frickin' army, so they know what their leaders are getting them into. Hart offers direct advice for the military man in clear, non-bureaucratese sentences. For instance,

In general, the nearer to the force [a cut in the enemy's communications] is made, the more immediate the effect; the nearer to the base, the greater the effect...while a stroke close in rear of the enemy force may have more effect on the minds of the enemy troops, a stroke far back tends to have more effect on the mind of the enemy commander.

There are also a couple of appendices regarding the Allied campaign in North Africa during World War II and the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 that would probably be of practical benefit to the battlefield commander. Even if al-Qaeda's leaders have not read Hart's work, it's clear that they've grasped the essence of his "indirect approach," as may be seen by the recent attacks in Mumbai. It is equally clear that al-Qaeda suffers serious losses when they engage in direct attacks, as they have done in Iraq. It remains to be seen who will win the long war between the West and fundamentalist Islamism. If the West is to win and remain true to its military and political traditions, it will have to give Strategy more serious thought.

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