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The Strategy Of Survival
A lifelong student of military history and affairs says that nuclear weapons have made the idea of war absurd. And it is precisely when everyone agrees that war is absurd that one gets started.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
What everybody agrees on is that war has become absurd on the human plane. To think about war is therefore to be deliberately engaged in talking about the absurd. For myself 1 know only one thing. That is, precisely when everybody agrees that war is absurd, that is when people do not make the sacrifices necessary to avoid it, either by strong armament or by being willing to make political concessions. It is precisely then that war becomes feasible.
You have suggested that the essence of strategy is securing an end by avoiding an enemy's strength and approaching him at a weak point. This is one of the Navy's claims for its strategy, which you have otherwise avaided endorsing.
The essence of strategy is to generate power while avoiding the use of force. A subset of that is that one generates power by exploiting one’s advantages and finessing one’s weaknesses. When the instrumentality of power happens to be something such as naval power, which, because of its operational setting, is inherently fragile, it’s very important to avoid the competition. The way the British did it was through a general policy Britain later described, euphemistically, as a balance of power. That has a nice connotation of fairness and equilibrium; balance is a word that sounds very positive to merchants.
Actually it was a policy of keeping the adjacent Continental powers at one another’s throats. The goal was to cause Europeans to be vexed with wars and so prevent any government, even a very progressive government, from unifying northwest Europe. The Continental states were forced to maintain large armies and couldn’t afford to spend a lot of money on naval power. Then, having expended your main effort on this balance of power that prevents anyone else from engaging in naval activity, then, with a very small effort you build a navy that is much superior.
And there is an absoluteness to naval engagements. In a land engagement even a soundly defeated army disperses, runs off; many soldiers hide in the undergrowth; you can usually recover a lot of the fragments, rebuild an army, and fight another day. Navies get sunk; they disappear without a trace, and the trained men are gone with the ships. So the key to naval supremacy is to avoid competing in building ships. The key to naval superiority is to avoid staking your all on battles.
But the British didn't pursue such a rational policy all though the nineteenth century. They remained suspicious of "enemies" they were never to fight again and ignored the foe that eventually would challenge them at sea.
It’s perfectly true, as you point out, that Britain during the period, let’s say, from 1850 to 1870, focused on a nonenemy, the French. They did nothing about the emergence of Germany, which eventually would create the problems that would finally culminate in two world wars and the destruction of British power. But that is only to say that having the superior strategic logic does not at the same time give you superior political analysis. Ultimately the fact is that about 1850 every educated person knew the French were the belligerent, martial, fighting nation par excellence and Germany was a nation of watchmakers, porcelain makers, poets, and musicians.
Germany had many associations, but not one of fighting endeavor. Prussia was totally unrepresentative. There were Saxons, who liked to dress up their soldiers in the finest uniforms and never fought except to lose. There were rustic Bavarians and all these wonderful, rather impoverished, friendly, and highly cultured little courts, Wittenburg and Saxe-Coburg and so forth. Moreover, they were family; the British royal family was from there. This was their gemütlich home base, not something that they could easily reassess. So yes, the British totally shared in the general misapprehension about Germany.
So you do not suggest that the balance of power is a guide to American stratedy or policy now?
No, no way. The phrase balance of power is an Italian phrase invented in the High Renaissance to describe a situation in which all the Italian states, which shared what was very much the same culture, would combine and recombine in alliances, very much as the Arab states have done since 1945; these are states that have the same cultural background after all. What no longer happens in Europe happens constantly in the Arab world. So the balance of power, this Italian concept, has been applied to very different environments: in India, for example, for long periods; to Japan before the Tokugawa consolidation. It applies to all kinds of places, but it doesn’t always apply, and it certainly does not apply to Europe today.
When the balance fails and people fight, would you say there were national styles in war, which exist alongside the universal discipline of strategy?