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Reader's Companion to Military History

Strategy : Theory

"Men do not understand [the coincidence of opposites]: there is a `back-stretched connection' like that of the bow." Thus Herakleitos of Ephesus (500? b.c.), thought very obscure by the ancients, but for us his statement is quite transparent after the experience of nuclear deterrence, whereby the peaceful had to be constantly ready to attack, and nuclear weapons could be useful only if unused. Deterrence unveiled the paradoxical, seemingly contradictory logic of strategy, turning the "back-stretched" coincidence of opposites into a mere commonplace and vindicating Herakleitos, the first Western strategic thinker ("war is the father of all things"). Still, long before him, many a cunning fighter had won by surprising his enemy—a feat possible only when better ways of attacking—hence the expected ways—are deliberately avoided. In that particular coincidence of opposites, the bad way is the good way because it is bad, and vice versa. Nor is surprise in any form merely one advantage among many, but rather constitutes a suspension of the entire predicament of conflict, defined precisely by the presence of a reacting antagonist.

The Chinese word for strategy is chan-lueh, and we know that it encompasses the same logic because the first Chinese strategic thinker, Sun Tzu, was just as paradoxical as Herakleitos ("those skilled in war subdue the enemy's army without battle"). The Roman tag "if you want peace, prepare for war" could have been Sun Tzu's.

The modern strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, uncovered the processes of reversal that lead to the end point of the coincidence of opposites, showing, for example, how victory is transformed into defeat (beyond its culminating point, victory exhausts the will to fight, overstretches the victorious forces, and frightens neutrals into enmity and allies into neutrality) and how war leads to peace (war itself consumes the means and the will to persist in war, while war losses devalue the purposes of continued war; thus, for example, the abandonment of South Vietnam was accepted once enough American lives were lost).

Because the enemy is a reacting being, straightforward actions usually fail; yet "engineering" approaches that treat enemies as inert objects are persistently seductive. When Royal Air Force chief of staff Charles Portal submitted a mathematically compelling plan on September 25, 1941, that asked first call on all British resources to build a four-thousand-bomber force to defeat Germany in six months by bombing forty-three German urban-industrial centers "beyond recovery," Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill rejected the plan, pointing out that if the bombing did begin to succeed, the Germans would not passively await defeat, but would instead strengthen their air defenses and disperse their industries, for in war "all things are always on the move simultaneously." Twenty years later, Robert S. McNamara emulated Portal's error with his mutual assured destruction (MAD) scheme to stabilize deterrence and stop the nuclear arms race. McNamara's calculation that a reliable ability to destroy half the population and three-quarters of the other side's industrial capacity was ample to deter was unexceptionable, but he overlooked the possibility that Soviet leaders might not want what he wanted: the paralyzed stability of mutual deterrence.

Conflict unfolds at separate levels (grand strategic, theater strategic, operational, tactical), which interpenetrate downward much more easily than upward. Thus in World War II, Adolf Hitler's choice of the wrong allies and the wrong enemies at the level of grand strategy could not be overcome by any number of German victories on the tactical, operational, or even theater levels (notably over France, in 1940). Had the D-Day landings been repulsed by some brilliant counteroffensive, Germany would not have won the war but would merely have become the first target of the atom bomb a year later, instead of Japan. As for the latter, given the complete inability of the Japanese to follow through by marching on Washington to impose their peace, the combat success of the Pearl Harbor attack was not even useless: it was counterproductive. Had Japanese pilots failed miserably on that day, evoking ridicule instead of hatred, the outcome of the war would have been the same, but at least the United States might have dealt less harshly with Japan. Again there is a parallel in Sun Tzu: "what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy; next best is to disrupt his alliances; next best is to attack his army"—the strategic prevails over the tactical.



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