Monday, December 08, 2008

Strategy and Tactics; Soldiers and Warriors; Warriors and Tenders of Machines; Capital and Labor Intensive Warfare

From my second post at Complex Terrain Lab, commenting (loosely) on Antoine Bousquet’s, The Scientific Way of War:

The comments have raised the question as to the actual disposition of military thinking, actual thinking among the officer corps today: to what extent does it in fact exhibit the scientific world view as developed in Dr. Bousquet's book? I have two responses, at least with respect to US military officers and their thinking, among whom I spend a fair amount of time. Take it for what it's worth; this is all just my anecdotal sense of US military officers and their thinking.

First, my sense of the US officer corps is that it has a deliberately inculcated duality that mirrors some of the dualities in this discussion. It is, on the one hand, a cultivated self-image as "warriors." It has been an evolution beyond self-identification as "soldiers," and on the handful of occasions where I have asked what the difference is supposed to be, what I've been told is that - to the extent it signals a difference - soldier identifies an important set of virtues and duties, based around honor and obedience and discipline within an ordered structure. The concept of warrior is intended to include those, but to go beyond them to suggest a broader sense of "self-starting," entrepreneurial - very much the sense that is associated with the "captains' war" in Iraq - a great deal of responsibility and initiative devolved upon the junior officers and below. There was a sense that the sole virtue of being a soldier was simply standing around waiting for orders, rather than figuring out what needed to be done and doing it.

I don't know how extensive that understanding is but that's how I've had it explained to me. Obviously there is a certain amount of tension between that entrepreneurial understanding of being a warrior and conforming to the discipline that comes from the top down - and, interestingly, and possibly simply because I'm a lawyer, I've had it suggested to me that the thing resolving the tension between those is an overall obligation of everyone top down, bottom up, to conform to a set of legal rules and obligations that override everything else. The idea being that the tension is resolved in a sort of universal law that, regardless of one's place in the hierarchy, oone must conform to and obey. That special notion of law – not simply a command backed by a threat, but something legitimately accepted by all the 'warriors' - in turn ties warriors to law, and law to honor, and honor to a professional and personal identity. This was one lunchtime conversation; how widely shared any of that is, I don't know. Although clearly someone has thought hard about why to use so extensively the language of warrior rather than merely soldier.

On the other hand, the warrior-soldiers also have enormous faith in the power of technology. They believe deeply in capital intensive war, even while thinking of themselves as warriors. It feels in spirit less like the idea of the soldier as technician tending to the infernal machines in a kind of neutral way, and much, much more like the sense of gamers whose gaming technologies have been made real – they can act as individuals with great powers in their hands. So when I say faith in technology, I mean technology as a way of magnifying personal projection of power as much as anything else. Obviously that is not especially so when one considers air power, sea power, all of these standoff technologies in which one really is a technician tending the machines. But even the development of robotics that Charli Carpenter and I have discussed some at CTLab - even the Predator - involves a sense of individual projection of power, a hand at the controls even if one is not present. Or the battlefield robotic vehicle guided by the hand with the joystick, who is a soldier directly in the field, on that same battlefield. It is a sense much closer to that of the gamer for whom technology is very personal rather than the impersonal machines of high modernism. Much of it, in other words, is technology in the service of the warrior, not technology that merely converts soldier to minder of machines.

In conversations I've had with, as it happens, wounded soldiers, their descriptions of what combat should be like is that it should be upclose, because that is how, at least in today's environment, you make it discriminating. There is no desire for or sympathy with the soldiers of the Great War or the Second World War, cannon fodder in the true sense. Their self-sense is that of commandos, never a mass as such. And fighting in the urban setting, as one recuperating (he was going to be fine) junior officer told me, requires that one fight house to house because otherwise you could never root out the enemy while sparing the innocent. He thought of it as a bit like police work, which I thought was a big stretch, but I did understand his sense that it had to be close in to make it discriminating. At some point, technology will reverse that, I imagine - robotics might well alter the way in which urban fighting is made discriminating, by detection technologies that allow much more standoff fighting with greater precision.

Second, however, in speaking with US officers at a more senior level, as well as civilian and military planners, I would say that the movement intellectually is not especially toward the "scientific" world view - that feels actually a little passe. Of course it is scientific, in the sense of applied science to bring on better technology. What is newer and more cutting edge is the growth of world view of cost-benefit analysis. This might seem odd to say - after all, when has war fighting not been about cost benefit analysis at some level? But I mean by this the application - and more profoundly the intellectual mind set - of opportunity cost, discounted probability theory, the whole array of tools taken from contemporary risk analysis in finance and the social sciences. The approach reminds me more than anything of Cass Sunstein, in something like Worst Case Scenarios, applied to military thinking. The language of present value, discounting and a whole range of metaphors drawn from modern financial theory.

In one sense, it has always been there. How could military thinking not be about cost benefit analysis - when it has always been built around military necessity? But there are differences and, peculiarly, one of the differences seems to me something that drops out - something that has always been better articulated in military ways of thought than anywhere else, but which tends to drop out in the new social-sciencey thinking. That is - don't look so surprised, please! – the distinction between strategy and tactics. But you can see the problem. If you are adopting wholesale the language, analytics, metaphors of game theory, especially - well, game theory doesn't really have a distinction as such between strategy and tactics. It is not a feature of games as such; it is a way of playing certain games. Philip Bobbitt discusses this somewhat in his Terror and Consent; I discuss it in passing in a TLS review of that book. The difficulty of letting go of the strategy-tactics distinction is that you are reduced to discounted probability analysis and opportunity cost analysis of what quickly - not necessarily inevitably, but certainly a tendency - reduces to dealing with risks on a seriatim basis, "event-specific catastrophism," I think I called it in my Bobbitt review. That's essentially what happens in Worst Case Scenarios, and it forms the basis for much of the "sophisticated" critique of the war on terror; proper discounting of risk, it says, will tell you that we are overinvested in trying to prevent terrorism.

But if you try that as a general case, you won't have much of a basis for strategy in that or any other instance, because strategy seeks to move above the "seriatim risk" analysis. Especially there will be no room to consider gambits. Gambits, after all, by definition go outside the serial risk scenarios; that is the point. In that sense - not intended this way, but it arguably has emerged this way – the Iraq war turned out post hoc to be a strategic gambit that invited a loose affiliation of Islamist jihadists to make their stand in Iraq. They took the (unintended) gambit, thinking they would win, which they might have, but it does not seem to be playing out that way. Whether you think that analysis correct or not is not actually my point. It is, rather, that it is a whole way of thinking that doesn't have purchase within the new social science of risk and game theory, any more than particular strategies in chess are foundational to general game theory. And yet the actual fighting of wars is far more like playing a game of chess (or any other particular game) than it is thinking through the abstract categories common to all games. And the general theory of risk analysis, precisely because it applies to, well, everything - discount the probabilities and compare courses of action – is of far more limited assistance in actually playing an actual game of war than it might appear.

So I find it puzzling, and a little alarming, that there seems to be a fashion these days within the US military, at least among some of the intellectuals and planners who keep a finger on the pulse of larger intellectual movements, to adopt forms of thinking that seem to me to give up, without good reason, some of the most original contributions of military thinking to general intellectual thought.

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