The Geography of Warfare, published in 1983, is a collection of strategic and political musings by Patrick O’Sullivan (Professor of Geography at Florida State University) and Jesse W. Miller (Professor of Accounting at State University of New York). Like many other similarly themed books published around the same time, the book is a wide-ranging, searching work; a modest contribution to the strategic remooring that was just beginning to occur as America recovered from the post-Vietnam haze and responded to the perceived Soviet ascent.


Not quite so simple…

Their post-mortem analysis of the domino theory shows the value of remembering that strategy occurs in a physical plane and is still subject to geographic limitations:

Since there is no formal statement of the domino theory, in order to analyse its logical structure we can only examine the mechanics of the analogy. The elegant, rippling collapse of a row of dominoes derives from its artful arrangement in a state of unstable equilibrium so that any disturbance will be transmitted along the row. The pieces are endowed with potential energy by standing them on their ends so that each will strike the next as it falls. If a gap greater than the length of a piece separates two dominoes, the chain reaction ceases. The dominoes have three states: standing, falling and fallen. That ‘falling’ and ‘fallen’ equate with ‘going communist’ may satisfy the moral perspective of those who apply this theory. On the other hand they might have been disturbed that the fallen state was a stable equilibrium while standing was unstable. The red and white characterisation of politics implied by the analogy is not only naïve and insulting but also runs contrary to a geographical sense of uniqueness. It utterly fails to capture the significance of regional or national identity which daily we see dominating mankind’s sense of self and place.

The model treats of aggression from one end of the row as the potential energy of the first domino is translated to kinetic energy by an initial tap. It falls, registering a change to the same affiliation as the aggressor and, in so doing, imparts this character to the next domino as it strikes it down and so forth. What the necessities of similar size and appropriate spacing translate into in geographical terms is unclear. Obviously in order to land on the beaches of San Diego some very large dominoes would have to be stationed on the Philippines, Wake Island and Hawaii. The existence of a gap like the Pacific should quiet fears of the red menace wading ashore in California. In the proliferation of the theory’s use, oceans or intervening nations are obviously not seen as gaps containing the contagion, but can be conveniently erased. The nature of the contamination process is not made very clear by the analogy. ‘Knocked over’ is redolent of liquor stores rather than nations and hardly provides a rich enough description of the process to prescribe preventative action. ‘Propping up’ has been used to indicate one type of solution, but has proven difficult to translate into successful political, military and economic operations. ‘Knocking out’, the lateral displacement of one or more pieces to provide a fire-break to check the progress of the conflagration, does appeal to some military minds as a feasible action. (p. 100-1)


In 55 BC, after several jolly years of massacring various Gallic and Germanic tribes, Julius Caesar found himself along Gaul’s Channel coast and within range of a tempting and lucrative target: Britain. The conquest of such a distant and reputedly wealthy island would bring great glory to Caesar, and thus he prepared a small amphibious expedition of about 2 legions (VII and X) to reconnoiter Britain in preparation for a larger invasion in the future. Caesar’s own narrative of this campaign describes one of the earliest amphibious assaults in history, in that the landing had to overcome opposition on the beach itself:

The natives, on realizing his intention, had sent forward their cavalry and a number of the chariots which they are accustomed to use in warfare; the rest of their troops followed close behind and were ready to oppose the landing. The Romans were faced with very grave difficulties. The size of the ships made it impossible to run them aground except in fairly deep water; and soldiers, unfamiliar with the ground, with their hands full, and weighed down by the heavy burden of their arms, had at the same time to jump down from the ships, get a footing in the waves, and fight the enemy, who, standing on dry land or advancing only a short way into the water, fought with all their limbs unencumbered and on perfectly familiar ground, boldly hurling javelin and galloping their horses, which were trained to this kind of work. These perils frightened our soldiers, who were quite unaccustomed to battles of this kind, with the result that they did not show the same alacrity and enthusiasm as they usually did in battles on dry land.

This imagery reminds me of Omaha Beach, with heavily laden U.S. soldiers having to wade under fire through 200 yards of neck-deep water before because the landing craft dropped their ramps too far offshore.

Caesar also describes how he used warships as fire support platforms to cover the infantry trying to fight their way ashore:

Seeing this, Caesar ordered the warships – which were swifter and easier to handle than the transports, and likely to impress the natives more by their unfamiliar appearance – to be removed a short distance from the others and then to be rowed hard and run ashore on the enemy’s right flank, from which position slings, bows, and artillery could be used by men on deck to drive them back. This maneuver was highly successful. Scared by the strange shape of the warships, the motion of the oars, and the unfamiliar machines, the natives halted and then retreated a little.

With the infantry struggling to capture a beachhead in the face of determined opposition, Caesar ordered some of his reserves from the transports onto more maneuverable vessels that could rapidly exploit weaknesses in the enemy’s defensive line. This ultimately won the day for Caesar.

Both sides fought hard. But as the Romans could not keep their ranks or get a firm foothold or follow their proper standards, and men from different ships fell in under the first standard they came across, great confusion resulted. The enemy knew all the shallows, and when they saw from the beach small parties of soldiers disembarking one by one, they galloped up and attacked them at a disadvantage, surrounding them with superior numbers, while others would throw javelins at the right flank of a whole group. Caesar therefore ordered the warships’ boats and the scouting vessels to be loaded with troops, so that he could send help to any point where he saw the men in difficulties. As soon as the soldiers has got a footing on the beach and had waited for all their comrades to join them, they charged the enemy and put them to flight, but could not pursue very far, because the cavalry had not been able to hold their course and make the island.

What I find remarkable is the extent to which this operation, over 2,000 years ago, presaged the fundamentals of modern amphibious warfare – including mobile offshore fire support, the abandonment of failed lodgements and the exploitation of successful beachheads with waves of reserve infantry – albeit on a reduced scale.

Caesar would return to the continent not long after. He again invaded Britain in 54 BC with a much larger force and this landing was unopposed. However, Britain turned out to be much less wealthy than Caesar had thought, and garrisoning the island was far more trouble than it was worth. Again Caesar returned to the mainland to deal with restless tribes. Rome would not return to Britain for another century.

Extreme southeast Britain, with the approximate landing site highlighted in yellow, between Deal and Walmer Castle

Extreme southeast Britain, with the approximate landing site highlighted in yellow, between Deal and Walmer Castle

I recently discovered that at least one Japanese publisher has released a manga version of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:

Somebody can't spell...

Somebody can’t spell…

During the chaos and confusion at the end of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Wu Zixu and Sun Zi leave their native land of Chu for the land of Wu after their parents are killed. They take an oath of allegiance to fight for King Helü of Wu. The story portrays the life of Sun Zi and the superior art of war that he develops during the two year conflict between Wu and Chu.

I also found a similar product [possibly the same one?] on Amazon.

I cannot read Japanese, and I do not know much about anime, manga, or Japanese popular culture in general, but these productions do not surprise me. Whenever popular culture regurgitates a strategic artifact, the subject almost invariably is Sun Tzu, and The Art of War retains wide appeal throughout Asia, for obvious reasons. No Western strategist – such as Jomini, Clausewitz, or Mahan –  can claim nearly as much popular stardom, despite their arguably greater impact on history.

Strategy is not a traditional field of study, and as such, there are very few actual textbooks covering the topic, so I am particularly interested when one occasionally does appear. A recent offering is Modern Military Strategy: An Introduction by Elinor C. Sloan, Associate Professor of International Relations at Carleton University. The title of the work is an accurate representation of content in that Sloan confines herself strictly to the military aspect of strategy (defining it as “the use of armed force to achieve the military objectives and, by extension, the political purpose of the war,” a definition found originally in the 1986 anthology Makers of Modern Strategy) and with a few exceptions, limits the discussion to strategic thought from the post-Cold War era: the early 1990’s onward. It is not a comprehensive study but rather a true Introduction; a primer that briefly surveys the work of modern strategists and focuses on their central arguments and criticisms directed against them.

To this end, this book centers on strategic thought in the Post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras. In our search for modern strategic thinkers we are looking for military strategists and practitioners, civilian strategists and scholars, and military and civilian historians who have written in the decades since the end of the Cold War about the conduct of war in the contemporary period, and who have put forth statements or principles that are at a sufficient level of generality, so as to present, at minimum, a partial theory of war. (p. 3)

Despite the introductory nature of the book this is still a very ambitious task because Sloan covers numerous functional elements of military power, organized by chapter: seapower, landpower, airpower, cyberwar, nuclear power and deterrence, and spacepower. Joint theory and military transformation and irregular warfare also receive their own chapters. Sloan covers a lot of ground in only 135 pages.


In a lengthy post several years ago, I argued that covert paramilitary action is not a viable policy instrument because of its inability to produce decisive outcomes on its own, the high likelihood of embarrassing failure and damage to U.S. prestige, and its propensity to be abused as a policy hedge in pursuit of hazy, ill-defined political objectives when officials feel that they must do something, but are unwilling to commit to a more robust course of action. Covert paramilitary action tends to become an objective in itself when policymakers are unable or unwilling to formulate actual strategy.

In the realm of foreign policy, where there are only bad choices, it has often been considered an ideal third option between inactive passivity and the overt use of military force. However, in the U.S. experience, covert paramilitary action has often resulted in spectacular failures that did not achieve their objectives, embarrassed the United States, undermined policy, and damaged prestige.

Last year, President Obama authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to supply light weapons and military training to small numbers of Syrian rebels. Not that there was any doubt to the contrary, but it is now clear that the operation in Syria is a victim of these same pathologies. A recent Wall Street Journal article details how the U.S. muddled itself into the present state of affairs, with a paramilitary operation woefully inadequate for countering Iranian resources that are bolstering Assad.

U.S. military officials, who sought to do more to help the rebels, saw the covert arming plan as flawed because they believed the effort was too small to make a difference. They argued that the cautious approach to arming such small numbers of rebels actually would handicap efforts to stand up a viable opposition.

The program, at the time, was meant to turn out between 50 and 100 new fighters a month. Overwhelmingly outgunned, they would be up against thousands of Hezbollah fighters in Syria, and thousands more trained and equipped by Iran and al Qaeda.

Within the CIA, many analysts, including Mr. Morell [then-acting Director], agreed the odds were bad, given the mismatch in commitments, officials said. Mr. Nasrallah [Hezbollah Secretary General] had gone all in; the same couldn’t be said of the Americans, these officials said.

In this sense, the current operation in Syria mirrors previous ones in Poland, Ukraine and Albania in the early Cold War, when the CIA supported small numbers of partisans against the Soviet Union despite the fact that such insignificant forces would be of no consequence to the targeted regimes. When called to justify the operations, U.S. officials would deny the existence of concrete military objectives and lapse into noncommittal language about the need to “apply pressure,” “coerce,” “demonstrate resolve,” etc. And so it is with Syria:

The objective wasn’t so much to help the rebels win as to assuage allies who thought the U.S. wasn’t engaged, administration officials privately acknowledge. Mr. Obama’s decision to authorize the program was meant to “relieve pressures and buy time,” one senior official said…

When deeply skeptical lawmakers pressed the administration on what their game plan was, Vice President Joe Biden intervened, arguing that the U.S. had to have “skin in the game” in order to have credibility, according to a former U.S. official. Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials argued that the training and arming effort, through limited, was needed because regional partners like Saudi Arabia were about to “walk away from us,” another official said.

What is it about the use of violence that inclines politicians to think of it as nothing more than a diplomatic signaling exercise? American policymakers have made the same mistake time and time again: using the blunt instrument of military force – both overt and covert – in pursuit of objectives well outside of its nature, in political and social environments beyond their understanding. In Syria, the consequences of failure are not as severe as they were for paramilitary operations during the Cold War, but U.S. prestige has been committed and rival powers are eager to profit from its devaluation:

After Mr. Obama’s decision not to strike in the chemical weapons attack, the U.S. learned that Russian, Iranian, and Chinese officials were discussing how weak the U.S. now looked on the international stage, said one former official briefed on the intelligence…

A longtime American diplomat in the region said that, for now, it looks like Messrs. Assad, Nasrallah and Soleimani have “won.”

The weaknesses of the Syrian program can be boiled down to the following major points:

1. Too small to be of military significance or an adequate demonstration of American resolve to support Assad’s removal.

2. Ill-defined political objectives that are mostly unrelated to the status of the Assad regime.

3. Vulnerable to subversion by Islamist elements, despite its small size and various efforts to guard against this.

According to the Wall Street Journal, administration officials are finally starting to realize that the project was ill-advised:

Some administration officials say, in retrospect, the White House could either have been more supportive of the opposition or more up front about its reluctance to get more involved. “We weren’t consciously bluffing,” a senior defense official said, “but we weren’t committing either.”


The beginning of everything was in a railway train …There had been a deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty; or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not patronize refreshment-rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. That is why in the hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.

Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King.

The quality of train travel has improved somewhat since Kipling wrote that amusing paragraph. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the fortunate circumstances of ample spare time and a convenient ultimate destination permitted me to travel aboard AMTRAK, America’s taxpayer-subsidized passenger rail service, a first for me as it was for numerous other travelers, judging by the many people who asked the same question I did to the attendant at the embarking station: “How does this entire process work?”


A couple of items:

Lynn Rees over at Zenpundit has posted an impressive compendium of all material concerning RADM J.C. Wylie that is available online, including blog posts by myself, Mr. Rees, and Seydlitz89. Who is J.C. Wylie? Mr. Rees’ post answers that question.


The 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division is a blooded combat unit that has seen multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and traces a lineage back to the First World War. Recently, however, soldiers in the barracks were made aware of a new enemy on the horizon:

I took this photograph myself and I investigated the authenticity of the poster; it was a genuine project conducted my military and wildlife personnel. They have since been removed, and for good reason. Soldiers I spoke with were justifiably insulted and felt infantilized by such a bizarre and pathetic “warning.”

Despite my best efforts, however, I never spotted the hyper-aggressive, man-eating variant of the Eastern Grey Squirrel.


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