Review: The Dynamics of Military Revolution

Just finished reading MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray's edited compilation The Dynamics of Military Revolution. Williamson Murray and MacGregor Knox have made many other great collaborations, and this is no exception. The topic of "military revolutions" and "revolutions in military affairs" is fraught with the legacy of the 1990s technoculture and Transformation boondoggles, and Knox and Murray and their contributors gainfully rescue the concept from technological determinism. Of particular note is Holger Herwig's chapter on 19th century to early 20th century naval policy and strategy and Mark Grimsley's chapter on the American Civil War. 

Grand Strategy and Co-Evolution

Zenpundit has a great post continuing the grand strategy debate. I'd in particular like to blockquote these parts: 

"In considering grand strategy, historically, except for the Romans during their golden age, state actors, even vast empires like the Soviet Union or Great Britain, never approximated a closed system that could operate without reference to rivals who could potentially present an existential threat, singly or in combination. While the Pax Romana represents the rare outcome of a successful grand strategy, most great powers wrestled with imposing their will on both their rivals – but also on the geopolitical environment or “system” in which they operated.

What do I mean by the “system”? The explicit and implicit cultural and diplomatic rule-sets; the ”rules of the game” by which powers interacted; the geoeconomic structures and patterns that were larger than any particular political entity and imposed constraints upon them, even the chance-based variables of natural resources and technological level which had a determining effect upon formulation of policy and strategy. The relationship between the architect of a grand strategy, his rivals and the world in which all were forced to operate consisted of a multiple variable feedback loop, not a diktat with a binary set of possible results."

In the context of the United States, this can be viewed one of two ways. One interpretation, which is increasingly popular, is that the US introduction into the international system in World War II set it on a path that corrupted it far beyond its original "innocence" and grand strategy that mirrored dominance of the continent of North America with offshore balancing elsewhere. The problem with this interpretation is that it does not fit the historical record. In his chapter in The Making of Strategy, Eliot Cohen points out that the US's grand strategy in the early 20th century was far from a classical offshore element. And Robert Kagan's recent study of US foreign policy, Dangerous Nation shows something quite at odds with the "innocence" interpretation. 

But we should also turn this on its head. So what if the US has been changed by its experiences in World War II and the Cold War? World affairs, technology, and geopolitics hardly remain static. Just because a certain grand strategy was valid for a hundred years does not mean that was a religious document and deviation from it is an original sin for which we should bear penitence. 

A second way to way co-evolution is the way that Zenpundit sets out. We are changed by our friends, adversaries, and the greater world-system that we inhabit just as we seek to influence it. That does not mean that there isn't something essential about our own nation and its culture(s) that we ought to preserve, but that such qualities are much more fluid than they often appear in books like these

Boyd and Clausewitz: Their Interaction


I was prompted by this paper to write a little bit about a topic that tends to polarize the small section of the defense blogosphere and wider community concerned with strategic theory: the interaction between John Boyd and Carl von Clausewitz. Both are widely misunderstood by their detractors. Both suffered when supporters with a lack of similar understanding twisted their ideas to support strategic doctrines that ended badly. The way that the "simple" understanding of the OODA Loop was distorted in the Transformation era to justify tech-centric ideas parallels how late 19th-century French and German strategic theorists twisted Clausewitzian ideas to favor the so-called "ideology of the offensive." Moreover, the misunderstanding of the multifaceted OODA Loop has parallels to the misunderstanding that many have of Clausewitz's Trinity. 

One of the most pernicious issues, however, is the debate over which strategic theorist is "better," which is part of how the polarization emerged. The problem with this is that Boyd and Clausewitz, while overlapping, are focused on different areas of conflict.What follow is an obviously simplified analysis, but simplicity is necessary given that both figures involved are tremendously complex. 

Clausewitz is mostly remembered not for his thinking about 19th century tactics and operations (which are obviously dated), but his thinking about the nature of war and strategy. Thus Clausewitz is more about strategic theory. This is not to say that he is not prescriptive–his book overflows with opinions as to what should be done, but that's not the focus of his work. He is focused very much on strategic theory rather than doctrine. Clausewitz is remembered as a person who set ontological parameters for what war is and how why it occurs, virtually creating the "modern" field of strategic studies. 

Boyd focuses more narrowly on two areas: the nature of competition and strategic doctrine. The OODA Loop, his ideas about destruction and creation, and his readings of military history are how about men and organizations compete. The Loop is perhaps the exemplar of this–a marvelous and deceptively simple idea that is applicable in everything from the tactical dogfights it was drawn from to grand strategy. Boyd, although very strongly against "doctrine," also does espouse a coherent set of ideas of his own about what kinds of strategies are effective and how command and control should be organized, both explicitly and through his reading of military history. Thus Boyd is a theorist but more explicitly a proponent of strategic doctrine than Clausewitz. 

There is a good deal of overlap between Boyd and Clausewitz. Clausewitz also writes about the mechanics of competition in ways that complement Boyd's interpretations. Boyd's ideas about strategy, in turn, are not incompatible with Clausewitz's. Both are very heavily reliant on the scientific ideas of their time to provide both a metaphorical and practical basis for their theories–Boyd with the emerging complexity and chaos sciences, and Clausewitz with the mechanics of his time as well as his own embryonic understanding of nonlinearity. Both are heavily dead-set against industrial "one-size-fits-all" solutions and skeptical about ideas that place a premium on some asymmetric advantage. 

The problem is that Boyd misunderstood Clausewitz–much of the Patterns of Conflict that talk about Clausewitz refer to the bogeyman that Liddell-Hart set up of a "Mahdi of Mass" that led to the World War I killing fields. Moreover, it is a fair criticism that Boyd's ideas–like those of BHL–are too optimistic about the chances of avoiding direct and bloody confrontations. This is, perhaps, the crux of the disagreement between the two. Clausewitz does not think it is likely to undermine the enemy from within to the extent that Boyd does. 

Still, it is not useful to rank strategic theorists like baseball players. Clausewitz outlined a General Theory of war that Boyd's more granular insights about human cognition, competition, and sources of power can fit into. It might also be useful to observe that Boyd fits into a modern "American school" of strategic thinkers that draw from science and social sciences to evaluate military history and come up with innovative thinking about the nature of competition–a school that would include J.C. Wylie, Andrew Marshall, Albert Wohlsetter, Robert Leonhard, and Thomas Schelling. Lastly, Boyd's strategic doctrine is still useful for practitioners and analysts. 

Building a Strategy for Chaos?


A long time ago, Jason Fritz of Ink Spots asked for my input on a post about whether a clear enemy is necessary for the formation of grand strategy. I wrote two drafts of this, which were then eaten up by computer glitches. The funny thing about this question is that despite the gallons of ink that have been devoted to explicit meta-discussions of strategy since formal strategic studies began as a discipline, we still don't have a very clear answer to this very crucial question. This is understandable, since there are some who cast doubt about the existence of "strategy" as a discrete thing that is created by governments or higher headquarters. 

The short answer is that grand strategy isn't something that requires an clear and equal enemy to create. But since grand strategy is something that involves a long time line, a substantially more broad subject area than war strategy, and the utilization of resources in peacetime, it makes more sense to visualize it less as an explicit plan than a collection of practices sustained over a long period of time. The policy of "offshore balancing" which Churchill mentions in this speech is one of those sets of practices. 

Boyd is commonly misunderstood as a tactically obsessed jet pilot whose insights mainly relate to cycling through a decision cycle faster than the opponent. But the importance of his writings to grand strategy is undeniable. His stress on the importance of forming organizations creative and efficient enough to "destroy and create" perceptions of the external environment, increase our own connectivity and degrade that of our opponents, and the importance of establishing a "pattern for vitality and growth" all point to aspects of strategic design that focus less on marshalling resources against a specific opponent than developing a basic strategic template that can remixed for various situations under a process of "plug and play." 

The problem is that as societies grow both more structurally and interactively complex, this process grows much more difficult. That is what The Collapse of Complex Societies is about–how, if we view civilizations as computing mechanisms, how growth makes it more difficult to carry out the basic process of response to changing external conditions that is an essential part of data-processing. Moreover, even in eras of relative simplicity, the ability to aggregate enough information together to form a grand strategic design was exceedingly rare for individuals and more difficult for governments than success stories such as 19th century Prussia might indicate. 

But would having another grand enemy make it simpler? Probably not. The sheer enormity of a global challenge like the Cold War poses difficult questions about long-term strategic competition and the use of resources, and the structure of the competition itself–played out in almost every conceivable venue–was far from purely linear. 

Mark Safranski and I recommended that investment in institutions to better coordinate and develop strategic planning as well as strategic talents would probably be a good short-term structural investment. The Office of Net Assessment and the Integrated Committee on Long-Term Strategy are good examples of these types of institutions. But maybe in the long-term we should start giving burnt offerings and animal sacrifices to the Floating Clausewitz Head