A Vision So Noble


That’s what presidents are for! (continued)

            John Stone points out that Operation Iraqi Freedom failed to consider 'the plight of the people who were destined to experience invasion and the decapitation of their state', causing the US to create 'larger problems than those they have solved'.[13]  What appeared at the time to be one of the most astonishing victories in the history of air-land warfare turned out to be only the beginning of a much more challenging war. ‘In War,’ as Clausewitz warned, ‘the Result Is Never Final’.[14] Philip Windsor expresses this very nicely: ‘Brilliant victories are not necessarily very useful in themselves ... victory is only victory when one party agrees to lose’.[15] The Americans won hands-down in April 2003, but neglected to convince the fedayeen, Republican Guard, and Sunnis generally. As a result, the Iraq war itself became an illustration of the Hegelian dialectic: war conducted as relational manoeuvre resulted in a quick victory; only to have that victory morph into insurgency, and insurgency into David Petraeus ….

            So what are we to make of the caution toward the end of the Unit that Strategy may have lost its meaning? The poster prof for this view is Hew Strachan, speaking of an 'existential crisis' for Strategy: 'The word "strategy"’, he complains, ‘has acquired a universality which has robbed it of meaning, and left it only with banalities'. True enough, but this is really nothing new, as Luttwak points out with his derision of the ‘unfortunate terminology’ of strategic and tactical air power in World War 2—a ‘hideous misnomer’, in Colin Gray’s more picturesque phrase.[16]

To be fair, Strachan traces Strategy's difficulties back to the Cold War and indeed almost to Clausewitz's day. Still, like Stone, he seems to take the Bush administration as his particular point of departure: 'It used words like prevention and pre-emption, concepts derived from strategy but without context.’ Worse, it not only appropriated the generals' language but ignored their opinions: 'professional service opinion ... often seemed marginal at best and derided at worst'.[17]

            Well, and what of that? Lincoln fired General McClellan, Truman fired General MacArthur, and historians applaud both presidents for their wisdom. Ignoring professional opinion is a national leader's prerogative—his duty, indeed, if he thinks best. That’s why he’s president! With the advantage of hindsight, we know (as Stone and Strachan did not) that Bush at the end of 2007 would again ignore his generals and order a troop increase and change of (dare I say it?) strategy in Iraq. The changes he thus set in motion would succeed to a degree that a war critic would marvel: 'It's the latest, greatest comeback in American military history, perhaps since the Civil War'.[18] In other words, since Lincoln fired McClellan.

            To be sure, Planning (Zeil) is not the same thing as Strategy, nor is Policy (Zweck). And politicians and journalists have indeed appropriated Clausewitz's language and done him a bit of a disservice thereby. But if Bush in 2003 was foolish to overlook the role that local passions could play in a 'liberated' Iraq (or Afghanistan, for that matter), we can be thankful that he did not learn the obvious lesson from his mistake: that in 2007 he should heed General Casey’s advice to refocus American Strategy on disengagement and withdrawal.[19] He was right not to do so. ‘No other possibility exists … than to subordinate the military point of view to the political’.[20]     

Solution: the OODA Loop?

Or was Casey suggesting a change of Tactics? Or of Policy? I'm not quite sure; as I said, I was only ever a corporal, and not a terribly strategic one at that.[21]  Perhaps, though, John Boyd points to a resolution with his thoughts on a process that will ‘permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment’.[22]  I’d like to think that Col Boyd’s OODA Loop can reconcile the Clausewitzian circle with the Hegelian spiral, and I plan to investigate this possibility as the term goes on.

[14] Clausewitz 1976, p.80 (uppercase in the original)

[15] Wilson 2002, pp.29-30, 33

[16] Luttwak 1987, p.90fn; Gray 1999, p.17

[17] Strachan 2005

[18] Pessin 2008, quoting Michael O’Hanlon.

[19] Woodward 2008

[20] Clausewitz 1976, p.607

[21] Krulak 1999. The US Army in 1956 didn’t teach strategy to its conscripts, or much of anything beyond snappy obedience

[22] Boyd 1976


Clausewitz, Carl von (1976), in Michael Howard and Peter Paret, ed. & tr, On War (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press)

Gray, Colin (1999), Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press)

Hegel, Georg (1892), 'The Science of Logic', in William Wallace, tr., The Logic of Hegel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.)

Krulak, Charles (1999), ‘The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War’, Marines Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 28-34.

Pessin, Al (2008), 'Gates Hails "Hero of the Hour" as Petraeus Prepares to Leave Iraq Command’ [online]. Available: http://voanews.com/english/2008-09-15-voa12.cfm [accessed 15.09.08]  

Stone, John (2007), 'Clausewitz's Trinity and Contemporary Conflict', Civil Wars, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 282-296

Strachan, Hew (2005), 'The Lost Meaning of Strategy', Survival, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 33-54

Wilson, Philip (2002), Strategic Thinking: An Introduction and Farewell (Boulder CO & London: Lynn Reinner)

Woodward, Bob (2008), 'Outmaneuvered And Outranked, Military Chiefs Became Outsiders', Washington Post, 08.09.08, p. A1