December 31st, 2012

Strategy and Experience

Can America’s poor strategic performance in the wars be reduced to aspects of personality? The question is relevant to those considering sources of strategic competence and is not as silly as it might seem. But first, some myths must be dispensed with.

I have seen a lot of critiques of this article (including factual: former Line of Departure blogger Carl Prine noted in a conversation with Doctrine Man that WWII veterans plunged America into Vietnam, and JFK’s vaunted tactical expertise, as a friend pointed out to me, did not help in planning or executing the Bay of Pigs operation), but I’ll cut to the chase on Paul V. Kane’s primary idea. Below:

First, the vast majority of our current leaders have only a theoretical, intellectual, and abstract knowledge of the military and war — not an experiential, visceral, and personal understanding. The proportion of our key decision-makers who have served in the military and have personal experience with defense is in steady decline. …People who have not served in uniform or combat are often ill equipped to understand how conflict and armies work (or, frequently, how they don’t), how war moves to capricious rhythms, and how war plans last only until first contact with the enemy. …Being a veteran does not inoculate someone from making stupid or reckless decisions about war — not at all. But an executive who’s never been to war needs first to be brutally honest with himself — to know what he does not know — and second, to surround himself with veterans whom he trusts.

The contradiction lies in Kane’s strong contention that leaders with a primarily “abstract” understanding of war tend to make bad decisions and his repeated weakening of this contention with qualifiers that veterans can also make reckless decisions. Indeed, Kane even notes that “frequently [the military’s] first inclination or recommendation is off the mark, inadequate, or undesirable.”  Then Kane further weakens his point by admitting that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, two of America’s greatest strategists, did not serve but had been “tested in other ways.” How to resolve these contradictions?

Kane has an implicit theory that military experience provides the following: (1) solid understanding of the nature of war (2) solid understanding of the mechanics of military operations and (3) a way of generating moral virtue that we expect in great civilian leaders. The fact that he has to repeatedly qualify and weaken this theory suggests that it is empirically untenable. Civilian leaders without military backgrounds have demonstrated “good enough” understandings of the nature of war and what can be done with tactics, and Kane admits that combat is only one means by which the moral mettle of potential leaders can be tested. Moreover, as Kane implicitly recognizes, some veterans have demonstrated poor understanding of strategy, tactics, and the nature of war as well.

This, however, still does not get to the dominant flaw in Kane’s argument. The biggest flaws is that Kane implicitly assumes that a given war has obvious or objective lessons. Some who served thought World War I was such a horrible affair that it meant tossing all of the political and strategic assumptions of the prewar years aside. In contrast, a prominent German literary intellectual genuinely enjoyed the experience. There is a hidden assumption of a unmediated process between experience and better (to Kane, strategic decisions he agrees with) policy outcomes. Most popular accounts of pre-WWI military doctrinal development are flawed, but there is some truth to the notion that the military professionals of the era saw what they wanted to see in pre-WWI conflicts in Europe, Asia, and Africa. So there is a big problem with associating experience with better policy outcomes.

There is, however, a tiny grain of truth in Kane’s polemic. Certainly, civilian leaders with mastery of politics and economics have a leg up in thinking about crucial aspects of strategy that are not mentioned in Kane’s article. Ignorance of both was fatal to “war for war’s sake” figures.  But strategy is “done” as tactics and any competent strategist must be able to assess how and if it can be done. Moreover, a lack of understanding of the nature of war can be fatal. Clausewitz counseled his readers to use theory to re-assess personal experiences and use history as a substitute for lack of the latter.  Lincoln, as noted by James McPherson, was an military autodidact that spent days immersing himself in Napoleonic warfare histories and textbooks in the Library of Congress to give himself a grounding in the strategic sciences of the era. Spencer Ackerman argued convincingly last February that Syria intervention proposals displayed indifference to both tactical and strategic aspects of war and warfare. So Kane is on to something, but just barely.

Donald Schon, cited by Christopher R. Paparone, also counseled the practitioner to be reflective about his or her profession and critically examine the tacit assumptions built up by repeated practice. Unfortunately, the latter does not come easily because people aren’t great in general about dealing with things like confirmation bias or resisting the socializing effect of professional cultures. Strategy is no different. Robert McNamara was a failure not because he was ignorant of war (he played a critical role in statistical analysis of airpower in World War II) but because he never bothered to think in a reflective manner about his tacit assumptions. The Errol Morris documentary Fog of War is basically a film-length lament by McNamara about his many failed assumptions and their lethal impact in Vietnam.

Kane suggests that political leaders without military experience should lean on their advisers for help. But his Cuban Missile Crisis example could benefit from a reading of Graham Allison on the ways in which the operational codes of service cultures skewed military advice. Political decisionmakers, former military or not, will always have to deal with the fact that their advisers may be constrained by organizational agendas and unconscious biases. Unfortunately, no leader will have all the relevant experience, information, historical context, or technical knowledge to be able to conclusively judge for themselves what course of action is best. Every kind of decision in a crisis situation is based on intuition, some of it highly unrealistic. As Joseph Fouche of the Committee of Public Safety noted, Churchill’s relentless defiance after the defeat of France only looks wise in retrospect. It turned out to be the right decision, but had Japan never attacked would America still have come to Britain’s aid? Certainly Roosevelt involved the US in both European and Asian conflicts before Pearl Harbor, but was heavily constrained domestically in doing so. Historical evidence suggests that the argument for intervention was more of a “close call” than popular memory would have us believe.

Some like to reduce questions of policy failure to questions of folk morality. Individual explanations are not inherently untrustworthy—at times political scientists and sociologists can overrate structural explanations for suboptimal outcomes while ignoring the role of individual agency. Nonetheless, not all individual explanations are useful. Expect to see more articles like Kane’s as the reality of the strategic failures of the last decade set in.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng