Ladders To The Moon

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is beginning – or rather accelerating – a process of re-alignment. Some aspects of this are normal or even healthy; change should occur after a very public and humiliating disaster. Other parts are more dubious. This brings us to Thomas Bruscino and Mitchell G. Klingenberg’s recent call in City Journal to put the “war” back in war colleges.

The authors claim that war colleges no longer teach soldiers how to fight and win military conflicts. This would be truly scandalous if true. What the hell is going on over there? And why don’t war colleges teach war?

The piece does not deliver on its core arguments, but it is not totally off-base. The authors are not wrong to register their dismay that the US military has assimilated a form of business management doublespeak. They are correct that there is often a disturbing lack of consciousness about the ultimate deciding role of organized violence in military conflict. And they rightfully decry lazy thinking about so-called “revolutionary” developments in warfare.

Yet it is unclear how much of this can be blamed on the professional military education system in and of itself. It is also unclear how it is linked to undesired political-military outcomes. Helpfully, the authors do try to explain how and why military education fell out of Eden and what Eden looked like prior to the fall.

The trouble began, the authors explain, in the Cold War. Soldiers and other security professionals believed that “modern conventional and nuclear wars were so devastating that they were no longer worth waging.” Accordingly, “political and military leaders sought to make war impossible.” Because of the high cost of warfare, “American military professionals must be diplomats, economists, scientists, historians, and lawyers.”

All of this education was pursued not to be better at fighting, but rather because fighting should not be done at all. The idea of war colleges without war therefore deviates from the older system in which war college students studied past wars and campaigns. A focus on great commanders and campaigns in educational programs “produced wartime leaders who could marshal vast fleets, air forces, and armies of well-equipped fighting troops into coherent campaigns.”

Today, the authors lament, educational standards do not prepare students for campaign planning to achieve military victory, and instead bog them down in “a maze of bureaucracy and word salad” that lacks measurable outputs or a focus on winning wars. In responding to their arguments, this post will not attempt to verify their claims about military curricula. It will deal instead with whether the recommended treatment – more study of battles and campaigns and less focus on other subjects – can improve the patient’s prognosis.

The authors are unhappy that United States as a polity has – since the dawn of the Cold War – often decided that modern major war is too horrific to wage and therefore ought to be avoided. How can specialists in the use or threat of violence – the military – somehow remedy security problems if it holds the self-defeating view that “wars can always be avoided” and “it is the responsibility of professional soldiers to do the avoiding?”

Assuming the authors are correct that such views hold sway, what is to be done? The authors observe that victory in the past depended on the “intelligent and overwhelming application of force,” but do not really tell us what victory itself is. The words “victory” or “win” appear repeatedly in the piece – CTRL-F finds 3 matches for victory and 19 for “win”/”winning” – but its meaning is taken to be self-evident. Whatever it is, intelligent and overwhelming application of force at least gets us to it. But “intelligent” and “overwhelming” are relative to the task, and are empty words without a task.

This rhetorically casts the problem as weakness of will. We know what victory is and what it takes to acquire it. We do not teach how to pursue victory because that requires admitting Athena favors the dirty little business of killing. Victory, here, is tautological because treating it as such has greater polemical value. But while Ronald Reagan’s “we win, they lose” had similar polemical value, Reagan as President obviously had something more detailed in mind for how America should engage with the Soviets.

Here is what should be beyond any reasonable dispute: violence is the ultimate determinant of success or failure in nontrivial armed conflict. The “man on the scene with the gun” is, ceteris paribus, the man of the hour. But this alone does not really give us much.

Consider a group of robbers attempting to abscond with a large sum of money. Violence is integral to getting the money (“pay up or we’ll shoot!”). But the robbers cannot hope to match the overwhelming numbers and superior firepower deployable by responding security forces. Additionally, there are other circumstances – such as the money itself being destroyed or otherwise rendered useless – that could make the entire game forfeit. The heist is difficult because there is a very small window in which success is feasible, and the utility of force diminishes as that window closes. Almost all of this is due to limits on violence and a particular subjectively defined object violence pursues.

What violence is supposed to achieve and what costs are acceptable to the aggressor are subjective above the level of tactics. It is rare that any one actor within a particular polity can singularly impose their definition of acceptable conditions. And even if consensus exists at any one point in time about goals and costs, consensus can still drift and mutate over time into something totally unrecognizable. But surely victory isn’t totally contextual. Isn’t there some objective standard?

In theory, success is achievable by “disarming” the opponent by removing their capability to resist through the application of overwhelming violence. Less euphemistically, Joseph Stalin allegedly said “death solves all problems – no person, no problem.” But everything mostly falls short of the ideal. Absolute force is rarely possible and/or permissible to use. Moreover, force is supposed to allow us to obtain something of value to us that the enemy is preventing us from acquiring. War does not serve war.

If a polity decides that a certain level of violence is so terrible and costly that victory amounts to defeat by any other name, you must abide by that determination unless you are capable of altering it. In American history, the military has often attempted to dispute the determination by building an autonomous sphere of competence for itself solely focused on the most atomic elements of the application of violence. By doing so, it can attempt to prevent or undermine the usage of force in situations that do not match its internally determined criteria for how force is to be applied.

However, its inability to singularly impose such criteria on the rest of the polity is the issue. This would be the case even if the military were in charge, since even military-dominated states cannot totally ignore the opinions of other relevant actors. Consequentially, the military is expected to grapple with problems such as deterrence and compellence, limited warfare, proxy conflict, and other interrelated concepts. These external expectations may disagree with internal ones, but also cannot be totally avoided.

Certainly the powers that be can go too far and ignore why they have people with tanks, ships, and airplanes. They can delude themselves about what can be done without violence, and they can shroud the undeniable naked facts of bullying and killing in politically correct language. It is the duty of people interested in the deployment of violence to correct them. Bruscino and Klingenberg’s piece would be better if it simply focused on that alone.

But in many ways the City Journal piece is a complaint about the seeming absurdity and pointlessness of pursuing victory under the shackles of someone else’s idea of what victory means. Unfortunately, that is part of the job description for soldiers and civilians that either think about how to pursue victory or teach others about how to do the thinking. However frustrating and difficult it may be. Hence the authors – regardless of their intent – propose something akin to climbing to the moon by stacking ladders on top of each other.

Any man can see that by the time he finishes climbing a ladder, he is higher up than he was at the ladder’s base. Two ladders are better than one ladder. QED? Obviously not. But this is what is ultimately so frustrating about war (and many other nontrivial endeavors). You can stack as many ladders as you like. But you will run into problems well before you reach the Earth’s upper atmosphere, much less the moon.