Thursday, January 12, 2012

The COIN wars: B.H. Liddell Hart and T.E. Lawrence edition

In 1928, T. E. Lawrence wrote to his friend Basil Liddell Hart on the subject of the latter man's advocacy for what he called the Indirect Approach, a concept that emphasized dislocation of the enemy through rapid, unexpected strategic and operational maneuver and held out the hope of bloodless, battle-free victory.
A surfeit of the "hit" school brings on an attack of the "run" method; and then the pendulum swings back. You, at present, are trying (with very little help from those whose business it is to think upon their profession) to put the balance straight after the orgy of the late war. When you succeed (about 1945) your sheep will pass your bounds of discretion, and have to be chivied back by some later strategist. Back and forward we go.
Lawrence was highlighting the cyclical tendencies of the never-ending debate about strategy. First come the proponents of maneuever and wars of position – Frederick, Vauban, Bulow, and even Jomini, to a certain extent – then the purported advocates of mass, destruction of the main force, decisive battle – Napoleon, Clausewitz, Moltke, Mahan, Foch – before returning to indirect approaches in reaction – Douhet, Liddell Hart, De Gaulle, Guderian, etc.

Little could Lawrence have understood the irony of positing 1945 as his friend's moment of intellectual triumph; that year would bear witness to a victory for the indirect approach, but not as Liddell Hart had hoped—instead of maneuver that would obviate the wasteful and unnecessary folly of battle, the atomic bomb achieved decision through the mass killing of civilians.

Here in 2012, the sheep of yet another set of prophets of the indirect approach – Galula, Trinquier, Sorley, Nagl, Petraeus – have perhaps passed the bounds of discretion, only to be "chivied back" by the Old Clausewitzians. (We can only hope. We still need concern ourselves with the outsized influence of the Owneses, the Cebroskis, the Rumsfelds, the Deptulas, and yes, the McRavens.)

"Back and forward we go." All that was old is new again. There is no new thing under the sun, etc.

[The exerpt above is quoted on page 36 of Alex Danchev's 1999 article in the Review of International Studies, "Liddell Hart's Big Idea" (pdf for those with JSTOR access).]

1 comment:

  1. Trying to Control versus Attempting to apply subtle coercion and persuasion through indirect influence