The Gnome of Minerva Flies At Dusk

Joshua Foust points out that he first made the underwear gnome = strategy-making analogy, complete with similarly helpful graphics.

I probably would have been better off with some lawn gnomes instead.  


Important Reads

Some books over the last six-eight months that I enjoyed reading, in no particular order:

1. James J. Schneider, The Structure of Strategic Revolution: Total War and the Roots of the Soviet Warfare State, 1994.

This book is foundational not only for its discussion of the rise of Soviet strategy, but it’s very concise and convincing explanation of how the function of what we understand as “strategy” changed significantly from the end of Napoleon’s era to the end of the First World War. Schneider, a professor at the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), makes a significant contribution that is relevant to today’s debates over the wars of the future.

2. Steven Metz, Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy, 2007.

There is a reason I keep citing this book: out of all of the Iraq war books it is the only really foundational one, because it puts the conflict within a grand strategic and strategic context going back thirty years. Army War College professor Metz’s points about the nature in which we handled the strategic problem of the Persian Gulf and its relationship to our larger grand strategic concepts are excellent. Long after the COIN debate becomes a thing for the history books, the larger strategic currents that Metz discusses will continue to be relevant to American strategy.

3. Jack Kem, Campaign Planning: Tools of the Trade, 2006.

Army Command and General Staff Professor Kem cuts through a heady mess of doctrine and theory to describe the rationale and logic of the American system of campaign planning. If you are looking a how strategic objectives are accomplished through the employment of force, this book explains in remarkably clear language the processes involved and how they came to be.

4. Ka Po Ng, Interpreting China’s Military Power: Doctrine Makes Readiness, 2004.

In the midst of the COIN vs. anti-COIN battle, it’s easy to lose track of the wider spectrum of threats. Aichi Bunkyo University professor Ng looks the evolution of Chinese military doctrine from the Maoist era to the modern day. He casts a refreshing light on the way Soviet, Maoist and more recent MTR/RMA-doctrines have meshed together, eschewing the “Sun Tzu explains everything” theory of Chinese military strategy.

5. James McPherson, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, 2008.

In a new analysis, Civil War historian McPherson looks at how Abraham Lincoln made himself the center of the war effort. In the words of Joseph Fouche, Lincoln was a “strategic aggregator” who concentrated every detail of the conflict and broke them down into a concrete concept of victory. McPherson’s clear and detailed description of Lincoln’s victory over the cognitive challenge of war has great applicability today.

6. Gregory W. Ellison, Operational Art: The Missing Link in the Iran-Iraq War, 1988.

Major Ellison, a then-student at SAMS, wrote an interesting analysis of the Iran-Iraq war using the emerging tenets of American operational theory. As an military analysis of the conflict, it has limitations due to its lack of Iranian or Iraqi sources. That being said I am more or less unaware of any single-volume history of the conflict that contains copious Iranian or Iraq documentation. Most of the work on this conflict (such as Dilip Hiro’s early 90s history of the conflict or Wagner and Cordesman’s “Lessons of Modern War”) were written around the late 80s or early 90s. Ellison’s thesis examines the campaign processes for both sides, and may be a useful reference to consult the next time a medium-scale Third World conventional conflict breaks out in the region. It is also clear, thoughtful and persuasive.

Widening the Circle

My last entry made me wonder about something I’ve often seen Sven Ortmann bring up in Small Wars Council discussions and blog postings: the lack of attention to modern non-Anglophone foreign policy, geopolitical and military thinkers.

So a question to readers: which thinkers outside of the US-UK-AU group do you like and think deserve more attention from Anglophone audiences? A big plus if they’re recent (e.g. post-70s).

In France, for example, I’ve often enjoyed the writings of Raymond Aron, Ferdinand Foch and Andre Beaufre. But I have no familiarity with any French geopolitical or military writers of the last twenty years.

One Way Transmission

Thomas P.M. Barnett’s Blueprint for Action has gone into Chinese printing. Which leads me to wonder – why aren’t American publishers more interested in geopolitical and military treatises from Chinese authors?

You can’t go to an airport bookstore without seeing a dozen “OMG, Rise of China!” books. But the only works of Chinese strategic thought most Americans are familiar with are that of Sun Tzu (ancient), Mao (foundational in some ways but written for mainly guerrilla warfare) and Unrestricted Warfare (interesting but only one side of defense debates within China). You aren’t, however, going to see any books written by Chinese thinkers after the Deng Xiaopeng era in print from foreign policy and military publishers.

Americans outside of the Chinese military studies commhity are not as familiar with other important and timely Chinese geopolitical and defense texts such as 1999’s Zhanluexue (The Study of Strategy) or 2000’s Zhanyixue (The Science of Military Campaigns). I have read the latter and it is an interesting exposition on campaigning from the perspective of Chinese strategic and grand strategic requirements. But you won’t find either in Barnes and Noble, and you’ll be lucky to even get an English copy through interlibrary loan.

The point is that American publishers evince absolutely zero interest in open-source Chinese foreign policy, geopolitical, and military texts. Given China’s status as a rising power, it is immensely frustrating that we’d rather read the airport books I mentioned earlier than look at China’s emerging foreign policy thinkers and strategists in their own words. The translation is difficult, as is the fact that the strategic and ideological context is different. But I’m sure that there is – if judiciously edited and marketed – a market for Chinese grand strategic, strategic and operational thinking in America.

The Stark Reality of Private Warfare

First off, I should point out that I’ve borrowed this bad, bad pun from Robert Farley. But even if he hadn’t come up with it, I probably would have. In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark declares to an incredulous senator that he has “privatized world peace.” The movie as a whole, however fantastic in its nature, points out an basic truth that is often eluded in movies that stereotype military contractors and private security firms as either praetorian guards or trigger-happy guns for hire. When it comes to the spectrum of force, state power alone is not the only game in town and never has been.

Feral Jundi reinforces this point by linking to an article describing the calls by some groups to bring back the premodern concept of “letters of marque and reprisal” to enable private groups go after Somali pirates. Regardless of the fitness of the concept, it illustrates what kind of conditions produce a reliance on private force.

Major states are often uneasy (or unable) to produce security in peripheral areas or advance their strategic objectives directly. This is especially true in areas that require international collective action – an area which is often more aspiration than reality. It is common sense that those who can pay for it will act on their own to deal with the problem. John Robb and others have also written persuasively about shifts in international trends that enable – for better or worse – an expansion of private entities acting in both domestic and international contexts to provide security and military advantage. Moreover, major powers wanting to act in an “indirect” sense often use private groups to act as their surrogates. In this mode, private groups are just one of several possible proxies that can be employed to do our bidding.

The point is that not that the use of privatized force is desirable. For a variety of reasons it is a drastically more limited tool than traditional state force. Anyone familiar with the 1960s and 1970s participation of mercenaries in African conflicts understands that in many cases these actors can also drastically worsen the problem as well. But privatized force can and will be employed by those with the ability to pay for it in the absence of credible alternatives. A variety of actors will operate on the lower rung of the spectrum of force. And in some cases they will be better placed to handle security problems than the United Nations.

We might as well come to terms with it, because it is most emphatically not new and will not be abolished by a supposedly more enlightened international order.