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Reader's Companion to Military History

Strategy : Practice

Given overwhelming superiority (material and moral), wars can be won and peace kept without need of strategy. Antagonists too weak to react significantly are, in effect, mere objects. War may still present huge difficulties of distance, terrain, and so on. But to overcome physical problems, it is not the paradoxical logic of strategy that is wanted, but rather the "linear" logic of sound common sense and of the relevant applied sciences. Hence, it is those fighting against the odds—the outnumbered, the beleaguered, and the overambitious—who have exploited the logic of strategy in their real-life practices. Naturally, more often than not, the great names of strategy, most notably Napoleon, ultimately failed.

In all their variety, grand strategies can be compared by the extent of their reliance on costly force as opposed to the leveraging of potential force by diplomacy ("armed suasion"), by inducements (subsidies, gifts, honors), and by deception and propaganda. The smaller the force content, the greater the possibility of transcending the material balance of strength, to achieve more with less. During the Cold War, the United States successfully protected many allies with relatively economical forces, little actual fighting, and a constant striving to uphold the armed suasion of nuclear deterrence. In this, Alexander the Great was a precursor, but the Byzantines remain the unsurpassed masters. Before his death, while retreating from a foolhardy attempt to invade India, Alexander had already earned millennial glory by conquering Achaemenid Iran, the only superpower for the Greeks. Although his tactics were "hard" (frontal attacks by the infantry phalanx and all-out cavalry charges), Alexander's diplomacy was "soft" and inclusive, as symbolized by the encouragement of Macedonian-Iranian marriages, to win over Achaemenid satraps and vassal peoples.

The East Roman Empire, which we call Byzantium, was least Roman in its strategy. Successively threatened from the east by Sassanian Persia, the Arabs, and finally the Turks, and from the north by waves of steppe invaders— the Huns, Avars, Khazars, Pechenegs, Bulgars, Magyars, and Mongols, the Byzantines could not hope to subdue or annihilate all comers in the classic Roman manner. To wear out their own forces (chiefly of expensive cavalry) in order to utterly destroy the immediate enemy would only open the way for the next wave of invaders. The genius of Byzantine grand strategy was to turn the very multiplicity of enemies to advantage, by employing diplomacy, deception, payoffs, and religious conversion to induce them to fight one another instead of fighting the empire (only their self-image as the only defenders of the only true faith preserved their moral equilibrium). Intercepted when still deep in the steppe by imperial envoys bearing gifts and misinformation, new arrivals were induced to attack the prior wave of invaders from the rear, or to stand against the next wave, or to bypass the imperial frontiers altogether. In this scheme of things, military strength was subordinated to diplomacy, instead of the other way around, and used preferably to contain or punish, rather than to attack or defend in full force. Other successful territorial empires in China, India, and Iran followed similar grand strategies.

The Roman, Ottoman, and Spanish empires by contrast relied more on force, all three commanding—and expending—the necessary resources. Even so, all three employed diplomacy to intimidate and win over potential enemies, and all three magnified their spheres of control cheaply, through client states, client tribes, or dependent principalities. For the Romans, the cost of empire increased when garrisoned frontiers replaced the client fringe (by the end of the first century a.d.), increasing much more when a defense-in-depth of mobile armies was also needed (from the third century a.d.) to counterattack enemies that penetrated the frontiers.

The grand strategy of the British naval ascendancy (fully formed by the early eighteenth century) certainly achieved power greatly in excess of material means. Its essence was to keep continental Europe divided and at war ("to uphold the balance of power," in self-serving British rhetoric) by persuasion, gold, and timely expeditionary interventions to prop up the weaker side. That forced the Continental powers to devote their resources to the upkeep of their armies, leaving little for their navies, which the British navy could then economically defeat. That in turn enabled the British maritime empire to exceed its Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch predecessors and also the French colonial empire, without requiring a vast naval effort: British naval supremacy was actually secured on land, by the balance-of-power policy. In our own time, it was the Soviet Union that for a while acquired power greatly in excess of its economic capacity, by employing ideological propaganda to enlist devotees all over the world and sustain client regimes, deception to mask weaknesses, subversion to outmaneuver opponents, and espionage to transcend technological limits. It was only when the Soviet leadership decided to acquire an actual material, military supremacy (after the failure of the "Missile Gap" deception and the humiliation of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis) that their ambitions ruinously exceeded Soviet economic capacity.

Other substitutes for force at the level of grand strategy have included the penetration of enemy societies and the exploitation of inculcated fears. Exemplifying the former, Genghis Khan's Mongols captured walled cities though wholly lacking in siegecraft because merchants won over by their reliable, cheap protection of the caravan routes opened the gates to the invaders. The Arab invasion of the Byzantine Empire was likewise assisted by dissident Monophysite Christians, won over by Islam's promise of religious toleration. Exemplifying the latter, Tamerlane terrorized enemies into preemptive surrender by staging spectacular massacres. Adolf Hitler's blitzkrieg offensives were likewise preceded by fear propaganda (notably by newsreel) and featured "terror bombing," more demoralizing than physically damaging, against Warsaw (in 1939) and Rotterdam (in 1940), for example; but much more often they tactically employed dive-bombers whose sinister scream was especially contrived with a whistlelike device.

In all their variety through the ages, military strategies (comprising the theater and operational and tactical levels) can also be compared on the basis of a single criterion: their content of circumventing, disruptive maneuver, as opposed to force-on-force, destructive attrition. The smaller the attrition content, the less material strength is needed to achieve given results. But high-payoff maneuver methods tend to entail proportionate risks. Thus it is mostly the weak and the overambitious who have relied on maneuver, whereas the well provided through the ages have tended to rely on attrition.

With the vast resources secured by their organizational abilities, the Romans could generally afford the low-risk, low-payoff methods they much preferred. Actually, the entire Roman style of war was positively antiheroic (when charged with lacking aggressiveness, Scipio Africanus, conqueror of Carthage, replied, "My mother bore me a general, not a warrior"). Relying on the routine skills of well-trained, salaried soldiers rather than the ephemeral fighting spirit of warriors, on sound procedures rather than the fortuitous talents of great generals, the Romans preferred to buy off enemies if it was cheaper than fighting them (not a decadent late-empire practice); if war still ensued, they preferred sieges to unpredictable battles, and then preferred to end them by starving out the enemy rather than by assault (the legion was a combat engineer force). Tactically, Roman warfare was mostly pure attrition, with enemies methodically cut down by the relentless advance of armored infantry. It was at the theater level that the Romans relied on maneuver, conquering by the vast encirclements of converging armies on a scale not achieved again until Napoleon. The Ottomans also had great organizational abilities, and they too relied on attrition; their janissaries were the first uniformed, drilled, rationed, and professionally commanded infantry since Roman times—complete with the first-ever military bands.

In our days it is the American style of war that has exemplified attrition; sometimes it has amounted to little more than the administration of firepower. Very successful against rigid fronts on land, against both German U-boats and Japanese fleets at sea once means became abundant, and sometimes successful in the form of air bombing even before the 1991 Gulf War advent of routine precision bombing, U.S.-style attrition failed badly only against guerrillas who stubbornly refused to assemble into conveniently targetable massed formations. But when Americans lacked material superiority, they did not lack for ingenuity: Douglas MacArthur's 1950 counteroffensive in Korea with its high-risk, high-payoff Inchon landings is a model of maneuver at the theater level.

Maneuver at any level is meant to disrupt and demoralize enemies by circumventing their strengths and exploiting their weaknesses; that is only possible if the enemy's ability to react is negated by surprise or outmaneuvered at each successive stage of combat by more rapid decisions and actions. Hitler's blitzkrieg of 1939-1941 achieved results far greater than German material strength. At the operational level, the long, thin, deep-penetration columns were theoretically very vulnerable to flank attacks, but they swiftly overran enemy forces, supply trains, and headquarters caught unprepared in the soft rear of pierced fronts. The Germans had little armor, but enough for tank spearheads to set a rapid pace; they had little air power, but enough to dive-bomb at critical points to open the way and to interdict flank attacks. At the theater level, the blitzkrieg disrupted by inducing hasty retreats: advance detachments pushed into the enemy's deep rear would lead to the hurried withdrawal of forces that might have prevailed if left in place, but that disintegrated while attempting to outpace the Germans to reconstitute linear fronts ahead of them. When the Red Army replicated and powerfully outmatched the German method, it did so with less tactical talent but much more real strength.

Deep-penetration maneuver had a long pre-1939 history, from the steppe horse nomads to Napoleon. Tactically, the horse nomads fought as they hunted. Enemies were outmaneuvered, trapped, and killed as game was, by the arrows of powerful sinew-and-bone compound bows (better than Napoleon's muskets). Able to live off the milk, blood, and flesh of their spare horses, with their families mounted also, the nomads had unlimited strategic mobility in grasslands. Attila's Huns first showed what horse nomads could achieve, if enough of them obeyed a single leader; but it was Genghis Khan who united entire horse-nomad nations to conquer on an Eurasian scale by fast, deep-penetration, all-cavalry advances that overran enemies before they could muster their defenses. Thus, few Mongols defeated many Russians and Chinese.

Just as the Arab invasions were propelled by a then highly functional religion whose very rituals taught discipline and drill and whose tenets positively required war for the conquest of non-Muslims while allowing the incentive of looting, Napoleonic warfare was propelled by a highly functional ideology. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité attracted volunteers from all Europe, won over many of the educated in enemy societies—and allowed French officers to allow their ideologized men to skirmish ahead on their own without fear of mass desertions. To this, the organizational genius of Napoleon added efficient logistics and entire cadres of excellent subordinates, while his operational genius perfected the converging advance of separate columns that would force battle on a locally outnumbered, even if outnumbering, enemy.

One of those Greek words that the Greeks never knew, the pan-Western word strategy (strategie, strategia, and so on) derives from strategos, commonly mistranslated as "general," but in historical fact a combined politico-military chief, and thus a better source word for an activity equally broad. The Chinese language achieves the same generality by coupling the ideogram chan (indicating war) with further, specifying characters. It remains to be seen if strategy can be broad enough to accommodate the inability of low-birthrate, postindustrial societies to fight wars as they always did before, because of the novel refusal to tolerate even small numbers of casualties. As compared to that quandary, nuclear weapons are merely a technical innovation that offers an attrition potential that exceeds the culminating point of utility, thereby being too effective to be effective, as Herakleitos might have said.

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