Of Dominoes and Quantums

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)

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RADM Wylie Mania and the Next Threat to Freedom

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.

Revisionism versus Realpolitik: The Strategic Culture of Syria

The concept of strategic culture – which argues that culture can influence strategic behavior just as it can social behavior – remains somewhat controversial. On the one hand, idealists reject the notion that not all cultures share in the supposedly universal aspirations of humanity, while on the other hand, neorealists are often hostile to an alternative system of explanation that does not depend on rational calculations of the balance of power. (It is, however, very compatible with the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau)

In my opinion, neorealism is a much more flexible and inclusive paradigm than many of its critics (and proponents) give it credit for. Kenneth Waltz’s “third image” of international relations describes how the structure of the international system can itself be a cause of war and also permits wars that derive from non-systemic factors, such as megalomaniacal leaders or warlike governments; it is at these levels – the first and second “images” – that strategic culture can be a useful supplement to neorealism.

This post is based on a paper I wrote a couple years ago, which used the concept of strategic culture to identify the sources of Syrian foreign policy. I think it is a good – if amateurish – example of how the national security community tries to employ the concept, conducting extensive cultural analyses to identify key factors that influence the subject’s strategic thinking.

Syria is a difficult case study for students of strategic culture. Ever since the Assad regime rose to power in 1970, Syria’s international behavior has been largely consistent with that of a realist rational actor. However, strategic culture can help explain the origins of that behavior.

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Honor, Terror, and the Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire

Continuing my [hopefully short-lived] antiquarian bent,  I recently read Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate by Susan P. Mattern. Mattern examines the phenomenon of Roman imperialism by reconstructing their own frame of reference. She argues that, in general, the Romans did not view international relations and war in terms of “rational” objectives such as the military defense or economic security of the empire, but rather in terms of national honor. “Revolving around this idea of image or honor, Roman policy worked largely on the psychological (as opposed to strictly military or economic) plane.” (108-9)

The Romans … [did] not frame their analyses mainly in “rationalizing” economic or geopolitical terms; these motivations alone – the desire to achieve defensible frontiers, for example, or to balance the budget through lucrative conquests or to retain the tax revenue of a rebellious province – are inadequate to explain the intensity and brutality of the Roman effort in many cases. Instead, the Romans perceived their struggle for empire in very different terms: crucial were issues of psychology, the emotions of terror and awe that they hoped to produce in the enemy; and moral and status issues, such as the need to repress superbia [arrogance among the enemy], avenge iniruriae [violations of honor], and maintain the honor or decus of the empire. It was on these things that, as they believed, their security depended; it was for these that they fought. (194)

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The Empire Has No Brains

America is missing something in its foreign policy…something very important. I am not referring to a unified grand strategic vision; we certainly don’t have one of those, but as I’ve commented elsewhere, that is to be expected in a democracy and its absence is not fatal to American statecraft. Nor am I referring to the ability to actually conduct strategy; that isn’t our strong suit either, but when we put our minds to it we’re able to muddle on through well enough. What is missing is something much more basic…much more elemental. I will let Bernard Brodie explain:

It is the conception simply of reasonable price, and of its being applied to strategy and national policy – the idea that some ends or objectives are worth paying a good deal for and others are not. The latter include ends that are no doubt desirable but which are worth attempting to achieve only if the price can with confidence be kept relatively low. Can it really by that such a simple and obvious idea is often neglected or overlooked? The answer is, most decidedly, yes.

Brodie was writing in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but his point remains just as relevant today: the U.S. is apparently incapable of conducting a simple cost-benefit analysis. At least not until the American public realize that they’ve been incurring significant costs but experiencing few benefits. Unfortunately, nearly nine years after the Afghan war began, U.S. policymakers have still not faced the blunt question of whether the return is worth the investment, and if not, how to bring costs and benefits back into equilibrium. The need to combat terrorists is not in dispute. What should be debated is the current strategy to pursue this objective.

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Counterfactual History: Soviet Aggrandizement in the 1980s

It’s difficult for Americans to appreciate the fact that the 1980s were probably the most dangerous years in the history of human civilization. There was no shortage of commentators exclaiming the miraculously “peaceful” dissolution of the USSR, but few dwelt on the fact that matters could have easily gone the other way had the Soviet Union  followed the historic pattern of empire and attempted to reverse decline through expansion. In his 1983 book The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union Edward Luttwak correctly diagnosed the terminal illnesses plaguing the communist superpower, and argued that it was highly likely that the Soviet Union would attempt to consolidate its position by invading the remote western provinces of China and setting up client governments in the newly conquered territories. Here’s how he made his case (to ease the writing of this post, I sometimes drift back and forth between the past and present tenses):

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Strategy Applied: Gen. Albert Wedemeyer and the Victory Plan of 1941

I am sometimes distraught by how long it’s taking me to write my MS thesis. Considering that Albert Wedemeyer devised the U.S. Army’s World War II grand strategy, unit structure, equipment requirements, and general concept of operations, all in a period of about three months, that sentiment is probably justified. A monograph by Charles Kirkpatrick recounts how Wedemeyer accomplished this, providing a nice case study on how strategy is formulated in the real world.

In 1941, the War Plans Division was tasked with calculating the nation’s total manufacturing requirements for the coming war. The assignment was given to then-Major (later General) Albert Wedemeyer, who had an office, a small staff, and about ninety days to complete the job. After pondering the question for a time, Wedemeyer realized that his mission was much more complicated than first thought:

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