Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Military reading lists, take 1,000,000

On Monday, John Arquilla published a critique of the U.S. Military Academy's "top ten military classics"  content and title both sourced to Tom Ricks  in which he proposed a "supplement" to the West Point list covering "the unequal struggles that have seen guerrillas, bandits, and commandos waging 'wars of the knife' against empires and nations." Arquilla's piece ran under the ridiculous and desultory sub-hed "Ten books that are better than The Art of War."

As I mentioned on Twitter* this afternoon, the West Point list is unimpeachable. The books that comprise it are so canonical as to be easily identifiable by just the name of the author: Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Jomini, Corbett, Mahan, Thucydides, Machiavelli, Delbrück, du Picq, Douhet. They are the very definition of "military classics," spanning thousands of years of the best thinking on strategic theory, the relationship between war and politics, and human factors in war.

The only inclusions that are even remotely controversial are the two I've listed last: Ardant du Picq's Battle Studies is widely misunderstood and unfairly blamed for the offensive à l'outrance and the horrors of the First World War, while Giulio Douhet's The Command of the Air is rather more fairly criticized as the discredited theoretical foundation for strategic bombingthe paradoxically-titled, empirically barren, and almost wholly speculative warfighting doctrine in which bombing civilians produces decisive strategic effect. 

But du Picq was (with Clausewitz) among the first modern military analysts to grapple with the reality that war and battle are fundamentally human endeavors, and to try to develop doctrinal concepts that were based solidly on a consideration of the fighting man's morale, mindset, and natural aversion to danger. (In this way he anticipated the later work of men like S.L.A. Marshall and Dave Grossman.) The real du Picq is almost unrecognizable in Arquilla's caricature:

For a more operationally oriented study of land battles, West Point chose Ardant du Picq's Battle Studies. This is a curious choice. Col. du Picq was killed in the Franco-Prussian War, but his belief that good morale could overcome concentrated firepower animated French strategic thought up to and during World War Iwith near-catastrophic results.
This seems almost certainly to be an example of judging a book by its cover, as Battle Studies is hardly an "operationally oriented study of land battles." (It's instructive to note that a better translation of the title, Etudes sur le combat, would be something more like "studies on fighting" or "studies in combat"; the book is most definitely not a catalog of battles.) While historical cases are obviously included, the volume is far more accurately read as a meditation on the influence of changing technology and the evolving character of warfare on the army's raw materials: the men who fight and die. The very first paragraph of the book reads like this:
Battle is the final objective of armies and man is the fundamental instrument in battle. Nothing can be wisely prescribed in an armyits personnel, organization, discipline and tactics, things which are connected like the fingers of a handwithout exact knowledge of the fundamental instrument, man, and his state of mind, his morale, at the instant of combat.
And what of du Picq's juxtaposition of the ancient combatant's mindset with the soldier of his own era?
But let us look at man himself in ancient combat and in modern. In ancient combat:I am strong, apt, vigorous, trained, full of calmness, presence of mind; I have good offensive and defensive weapons and trustworthy companions of long standing. They do not let me be overwhelmed without aiding me. I with them, they with me, we are invincible, even invulnerable. We have fought twenty battles and not one of us remained on the field. It is necessary to support each other in time; we see it clearly; we are quick to replace ourselves, to put a fresh combatant in front of a fatigued adversary. We are the legions of Marius, fifty thousand who have held out against the furious avalanches of the Cimbri. We have killed one hundred and forty thousand, taken prisoner sixty thousand, while losing but two or three hundred of our inexperienced soldiers. 
To-day, as strong, firm, trained, and courageous as I am, I can never say: I shall return. I have no longer to do with men, whom I do not fear, I have to do with fate in the form of iron and lead. Death is in the air, invisible and blind, whispering, whistling. As brave, good, trustworthy, and devoted as my companions may be, they do not shield me. Only,and this is abstract and less immediately intelligible to all than the material support of ancient combat,only I imagine that the more numerous we are who run a dangerous risk, the greater is the chance for each to escape therefrom.
Does this man sound like one who believed that "good morale could overcome concentrated firepower"this man who argued that "to insure success in the rude test of conflict, it is not sufficient to have a mass composed of valiant men," but that those men must have "good arms" and "methods of fighting suitable to these arms and those of the enemy and which do not overtax the physical and moral forces of man"? Arquilla's evident unfamiliarity with this text underlines its case for inclusion. 

More than anything else, though, du Picq's importance can be best summed up by Michael Howard's poignant observation: 
La solidarité n'à plus la sanction d'une surveillance mutuelle: that has been the problem of morale on the battlefield ever since (MMS, p. 513).
The French is a direct quotation from Etudes: "cohesion is no longer ensured by mutual observation." Dispersion – necessary for survival in the face of fearsome modern weapons  challenges a man's courage, and cohesion through confidence in mutual support is the only way to bolster it. Howard, writing in 1984, recognized the endurance of this challenge.

Douhet is yet more controversial, largely because he is more well-known. The original airpower theorist is easy to criticize. He wrote at a time when the air weapon was novel, when some believed effective countermeasures in three-dimensional space were an impossibility. We should also remember how his contemporaries had been chastened by the destruction of the Great War, and it was widely held that mass armies, modern weapons, and restricted mobility had rendered landpower incapable of strategic decision. Douhet's theory of war  which made no distinction between combatant and civilian and held that overwhelming firepower concentrated on the sources of the enemy's moral and material power could achieve rapid, decisive effects  seems both more plausible and more moral through the lens of 1921. Indeed, David MacIsaac reminds us that Douhet's significance "resides less in his originality than in his being the first to pull together, in one place and in a structured order, ideas widely shared at the time" (MMS, p. 631).

But efficacy aside, the lasting influence of Douhet's ideas is enough to merit his inclusion among the "classics." The consensus view may hold that strategic bombing is theoretically implausible and empirically fraudulent, but the original airpower theorists have at the very least an extremely prominent thumbprint on the history of Air Force doctrine and concepts. While the U.S. air arm eventually moved away from Douhetian bomber-centric doctrine and toward the "anything that flies" conception of airpower elaborated by Billy Mitchell (MMS, p. 635), strategic bombing shares with modern concepts like rapid decisive operations and "strategic paralysis" an interest in identifying and targeting "critical nodes" on which the enemy's entire war effort rests:
Perhaps because they found it impossible to envisage bomber fleets of the size implied by Douhet, some of the instructors [at the Army Air Corps Tactical School] began to wonder whether it might be possible, through careful, scientific study of a nation's industry, to single out particular targets whose destruction would of itself bring to a halt an entire industry or series of industries. If a number of such 'bottleneck' targets could be identified and destroyed, it might be possible, with a relatively small force, to bring an enemy's war production to a halt with almost surgical precision, thereby rendering the enemy incapable of further resistance (MMS, p. 634).
One need only reference the ideas of Liddell Hart, Fuller, Leonhard, Boyd, Rumsfeld, Naveh, et al to see why such plainly fantastical thinking is still noteworthy in the modern day. Whether Douhet was right or wrong  and I do feel quite certain that he was wrong  the unfortunate lasting influence of his ideas about strategic directness through the indirect application of violence means those ideas simply cannot be willfully ignored. 

Having dutifully defended the inclusion of two "classics" Arquilla did not directly attack, I'll reveal the ultimate irony of his complaint that the USMA list is unduly focused on "the 'horizontal' dynamic of clashes of roughly equal great powers armed with the most advanced weapons" (as if this sounds quite like what Corbett was concerned with, or Sun Tzu or Clausewitz!): he didn't look at the whole list.

That's right, the "Top Ten Military Classics" are the first ten volumes listed... on the Officer's Professional Reading Guide Top 100 (auto-downloading .doc) issued by the West Point history department. Among the remaining 90 we find Asprey on guerillas, Galula on counterinsurgency, Linn on the pacification of the Phillipines, Bowden on Somalia, Bellavia and Fick and Junger on the post-9/11 wars, Herrington on the Vietcong and Moore and Galloway on the NVA, Grimsley on the Union Army and Southern civilians and Royster on Sherman and Sheridan. And Bernard Fall, Alistair Horne, Lester Grau, and Dexter Filkins. And Larteguy. And Marlantes. And O'Brien. 

And some dude named Mao...?

(Oh yeah, and even Anton sodding Myrer.)

*Thanks to Kelsey Atherton for collecting those tweets and creating the Storify page I've linked above.


  1. Sodding? What's with the British-isms?

    (Just saw a BBC article on that topic : ) )

    Forget lists, what was that Arquilla Russia piece all about?

    - Madhu

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