Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ok, who's the Joint Staff's historian?

The Chairman's Strategic Direction to the Joint Force (pdf) was issued yesterday. It's a concise, well-written essay that breaks new ground and elaborates a novel sort of military policy that is expertly tailored to America's unique and unprecedented strategic circumstances. (Ok, just kidding: it's repetitive boilerplate and says precisely nothing that hasn't appeared in every other DoD publication and major media report over the last month. But if that's your thing, you should read it.)

I don't know who's doing history for GEN Dempsey, but he or she ain't doing it very well. On page 3 of the document (the first page of actual text), there's a call-out box with a quote from Basil Liddell Hart. Here's what it says:
The true national object in war, as in peace, is a more perfect peace.
Well said, Captain Sir Basil! This is one of the least nutty, most defensible things Liddell Hart ever wrote (largely because he's just paraphrasing Clausewitz). So what's the problem? Well, the Chairman's document identifies the date of the quote as 1944, which is... well, it's just way wrong. I'm not sure why this date was chosen, but it's wrong.

This most Clausewitzian of sentiments was penned by Liddell Hart in a 1927 book entitled A Greater than Napoleon: Scipio Africanus. Writing of the peace terms the Roman general offered to the Carthaginians after his victory, Liddell Hart avers that
it is not too much to say that Scipio had a clear grasp of what is just dawning on the mind of the world to-day—that the true national object in war, as in peace, is a more perfect peace. War is the result of a menace to this policy, and is undertaken in order to remove the menace, and by the subjugation of the will of the hostile state "to change this adverse will into compliance with our own policy, and the sooner and more cheaply in lives and money we can do this, the better the chance is there of a continuance of national prosperity in the widest sense. The aim of the nation in war is, therefore, to subdue the enemy's will to resist with the least possible human and economic loss to itself" (152-153).
See the quotation marks there? That's Liddell Hart quoting himself, which is something he quite liked to do in order to show the reader that he pretty much had everything covered already, anyway. That text – the second half of the text block above – first appeared in Paris: Or, the Future of War (p. 19), first published in 1925.

A similar sentiment appeared in another of Liddell Hart's 1925 publications, this one entitled "The Napoleonic Fallacy: The Moral Objective in War." He argued that the national objective in war should be
a resumption and progressive continuance of what may be termed the peace time policy, with the shortest and least costly interruption of the normal life of the country. (Cited in Richard Swain's "B.H. Liddell Hart and the Creation of a Theory of War, 1919-1933" ($), in a 1990 issue of Armed Forces and Society.) 
I draw your attention to the origins and close relations of this quote to illustrate the dangers of abstracting attractive sentiments from their narrative and conceptual contexts. Surely the well-intended staff officer who chose this particular aphorism did so to imbue the imminent conclusion of America's extended conflicts with the sort of gravity and meaning one presumably only gets from fighting for a better world.

But Liddell Hart used the phrase as part of a broader argument about the need to prosecute wars in such a way as to ensure their rapid conclusion—something he viewed as being the only humane choice. Of course, in the service of this humane ideal, he advocated the use of strategic bombing and gas attacks against the enemy's civilian population "to strike direct at the seat of the opposing will and policy." As Swain tells us, Liddell Hart
dismissed moral objections to making war on noncombatants ... by observing that civilian losses would be unlikely to exceed those of another world war in light of the speed with which the use of gas would produce war termination (Swain 40). 
Context matters, huh? "A more perfect peace" sounds great when it manifests as limited war aims and generous terms, but what about when the means of "resumption and progressive continuance of... the peace time policy" involves the willful slaughter of noncombatants?

If we look back to the roots of the "more perfect peace" sentiment – the part that deals with rational policy, anyway – we can see one of the approximately ten billion ways that Clausewitz makes more sense than his 20th century English critic. This is from Book Eight, Chapter 6B of On War:
It is, of course, well-known that the only source of war is politics—the intercourse of governments and peoples; but it is apt to be assumed that war suspends that intercourse and replaces it by a wholly different condition, ruled by no law but its own.
We maintain, on the contrary, that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace. How could it be otherwise? Do political relations between peoples and between their governments stop when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged? Is war not just another expression of their thoughts, another form of speech or writing? Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.  
If that is so, then war cannot be divorced from political life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense (p. 605 of the 1984 Howard and Paret translation).
Liddell Hart called Clausewitz the "mahdi of mass" and blamed him for inspiring the bloody, slug-it-out tactics that sustained the attritionists' stalemate on the Western Front. But I'd ask you to read these passages again and reflect on which man seems to abstract victory from politics and to celebrate violent and chimerical "decision."

I've gone off on a bit of a tangent, as you can see, but we should all take a couple of lessons from this episode: 1) get your dates right—it's easy, and when you don't, someone is going to make you look silly; and 2) there's almost always someone out there who has read the whole book, so make sure you understand the context of your quotes before you reproduce them.

Next time you're looking for a quote, 18, just shoot me an email!

7 comments:

  1. This is nothing to do with the post, but I've been reading Kennan's "Sketches of a Life" and it's so beautifully written....

    Hey, let's see if I can actually post for a change.

    - Madhu

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Sketches From A Life."

    Ha! It worked for a change!

    - Madhu

    ReplyDelete
  3. Gulliver and the “Wondrous Deep” and the “Wondrous Dark.”


    Gulliver, in his recent posting on Chairman Dempsey’s Strategic Direction to the Joint Force, advances profound thoughts on the teleology of war. Gulliver’s profundity, however, is best-described by his nom de plume’s author. Mr. Swift (A Tale of a Tub (1704)) opined on the “subject of profound writers:” “[I]t is with writers as with wells - a person with good eyes may see to the bottom of the deepest, provided any water be there: and often when there is nothing in the world at the bottom besides dryness and dirt, though it be but a yard and a-half underground, it shall pass, however, for wondrous deep upon no wiser reason than because it is wondrous dark.” Gulliver’s well is merely dark for at least two reasons.

    First, Gulliver’s critique rightly asserts: “[G]et your dates right—it’s easy, and when you don’t, someone is going to make you look silly … .” Silliness is particularly apparent when the dates are "Just way wrong.” But see Basil Liddell-Hart’s "Thoughts On War" (London: Faber and Faber LTD, 1944) at page 42. (“The true national object in war, as in peace, is a more perfect peace.") As Gulliver notes, it’s “easy” to get it “right,” and it looks really “silly” when you don’t. Mr. Gulliver appears to have written before reading, but the larger question is why he would so grossly exaggerate this matter, even if he were correct, which he is decidedly not. Perhaps it is nothing more than what Freud called the narcissism of small differences, but I don’t really think so. Gulliver’s ad hominem attacks on the Chairman and his historians may be nothing more than the hubris of one who believes himself to be the “someone out there who has read the whole book” and who understands “the context of your quotes.” But there is, I suggest, more.

    Second, Gulliver’s argument is premised on a classic slippery slope fallacy. Using Liddell Hart’s quote to define “a more perfect peace” as an end, surely does not mean that the author accepts every related Liddell Hart assertion. Indeed, if there is a problem of derivative context, it is Gulliver’s. As he acknowledges, he gets “off on a bit of tangent.” But his syllogism runs something like this: Liddell Hart’s thought, highlighted in the Chairman’s Direction, along with quotations from Presidents Washington and Eisenhower, and the Roman poet Horace, is inappropriate, because Liddell Hart also suggested, in other writings, that the humane prosecution of war involved the use of strategic bombing and gas attacks on civilian populations in order to conclude the hostility as rapidly as possible. In contrast, Gulliver offers--with enthusiastic hyperbole--none other than Clausewitz, himself, as the proper theoretical alternative to Liddell Hart: “[W]e can see one of the approximately ten billion ways that Clausewitz makes more sense than his 20th century English critic.” Really?

    During his prodigious writing career, Liddell Hart was, according to one commentator, “persistently and bitterly critical” of Clausewitz and On War. In Liddell Hart’s view, Clausewitz or his misguided disciples were directly responsible for the carnage of the Western Front from 1914 to 1918. It appears from the extended quotation that Gulliver provides from On War that he is, indeed, a latter day follower of the “war as the continuation of policy by other means” school. But sliding down the slippery slope that he lays before the Chairman, does Gulliver embrace all that Clausewitz advocated? Would he embrace “war as strategy” to the total exclusion of jus ad bellum?

    In the tar pits of public discourse that pass for profundity on national security matters, in which the bones of intellectual dinosaurs regularly bubble to the surface, Gulliver’s piece is a real archeological find. It is wondrous dark, but hardly deep.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Who knew there were lawyers out there who cared so much about Liddell Hart?

    Anonymous @ 1041 — I do appreciate your thorough critique (and particularly the Swiftian theme!), but I'm afraid it isn't as powerful as you've imagined. Put simply: I'm not exactly sure what it is you're trying to say.

    Your first mistake was to imagine that there are any "profound thoughts on the teleology of war" in what I considered to be a rather simple little missive. Maybe my point was obscure, so I'll restate it: the casual citation of apparently uncontroversial aphorisms can be distracting and counterproductive when considered by those who understand the context from which the pithy sayings have been ripped. Is this contentious?

    You've gone to some effort to find that Liddell Hart again quoted himself in a 1944 book that advanced few new ideas, but you don't dispute that the phrase first appeared in print in 1927. Do you think the philosophical thrust of the work in which it appeared (and the works Liddell Hart produced during that same era) is irrelevant to its meaning? Do you think it's helpful to the cause of the unfortunate quote-chooser to expose that individual's ignorance of the words' original source?

    I suppose it would've been more fair of me to note that those words DID in fact appear in print in 1944 while at the same time pointing out that they were first written 17 years prior, and that the strategic direction document actually quoted Liddell Hart quoting himself. Of course, to know that, I would've had to have plowed through all of the man's wartime apologetics, his various sad efforts to cover for the fact that he'd spent the decade and a half prior to the war being wrong and contributing mightily to getting people dead, rather than just familiarizing myself with his then-somewhat-original contributions in the 1920s. So here you are, for full disclosure: I did not know that Liddell Hart had reproduced his own words verbatim in 1944. My bad! (But just for the record, which is the part where I'm "decidedly not" correct?)

    Of course, there are the other troubling elements of your essay: accusing me of "ad hominem attacks on the Chairman and his historians" (where?), vaguely suggesting that I've not read the work that I purport to have read (why?), casting aspersions of hubris and narcissism (stipulated!), and the grand-daddy of them all: engaging in slippery-slope-ism!

    Gulliver’s argument is premised on a classic slippery slope fallacy. Using Liddell Hart’s quote to define “a more perfect peace” as an end, surely does not mean that the author accepts every related Liddell Hart assertion.

    No, of course it doesn't. Who would argue such nonsense?

    (continued)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Indeed, if there is a problem of derivative context, it is Gulliver’s. As he acknowledges, he gets “off on a bit of tangent.” But his syllogism runs something like this: Liddell Hart’s thought, highlighted in the Chairman’s Direction, along with quotations from Presidents Washington and Eisenhower, and the Roman poet Horace, is inappropriate, because Liddell Hart also suggested, in other writings, that the humane prosecution of war involved the use of strategic bombing and gas attacks on civilian populations in order to conclude the hostility as rapidly as possible.

    And again you've misunderstood me. I've not constructed any sort of syllogism, now that you mention it. I've not argued that "Liddell Hart's thought ... is inappropriate" (I actually argued that "this is one of the least nutty, most defensible things Liddell Hart ever wrote"!), nor have I argued even that it's inappropriate to quote him. What I have argued is that those who wish to highlight this eminently sensible maxim should evince a clear understanding of what Liddell Hart was trying to say when he crafted it. And what he was trying to say is basically this: that a combatant should undertake those measures he deems most likely to bring hostilities to a rapid conclusion, even if this includes the sort of slippery-slope utilitarianism that verges on war crimes and depends on the hypothetical shock effect created by the willful incursion of mass noncombatant casualties.

    Yes, I prefer Clausewitz to Liddell Hart, something that will come as no surprise to those who may have encountered on this blog such prevarications as "OH MY GOD I PREFER CLAUSEWITZ SO MUCH TO LIDDELL HART" and suchlike. (I'm kidding, but not by much.) Liddell Hart's criticism of Clausewitz was idiotic and ill-informed; this is, in fact, one of the major themes of the original post. Clausewitz, of course, did not write a prescriptive tome; to compare the two men's corpus by imagining that they are similar is pure folly.

    I don't imagine that GEN Dempsey would "embrace all that [Liddell Hart] advocated," no, but it should be plain to most readers that this is a straw man of your creation, not mine. I can say, though, and rather confidently, that I do embrace most of what Clausewitz advocated. But that's not saying much: Clausewitz was not an advocate for much of anything beyond coming to a correct understanding of the nature of war — and that sounds like a good idea to me. Quite where you've gotten the idea that he "embrace[d] 'war as strategy' to the total exclusion of jus ad bellum" is a mystery, but you've proven above to have rather an active imagination. You make the same mistake as did Liddell Hart, Foch, Haig, and the rest of the alleged disciples of his imaginary "mahdi of mass and mutual slaughter": confusing description and prescription.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I am the Joint Staff's historian and you sir are a dick.

    I'll quote Liddell Hart when and how I please.

    For example,

    "I'd like to throw some ink spots in that Gulliver's eyes."
    -- Liddell Hart (Oct 14th, 1929)

    ReplyDelete