Athens, Sparta, and Strategic Miscalculation

Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part III

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Nearly a century before the onset of the Peloponnesian War, on the other side of the planet, Sun Tzu wrote the scripts for The Art of War, including the famous admonishment to “know thy enemy, know thyself.” Unfortunately for the Athenians, the lesson had not yet transmitted very far from ancient China. At the very outset of the war, Athens committed three critical strategic miscalculations that would cripple the effective prosecution of the war.

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Thoughts on Thucydides – Book I, Part II: Bipolar Disorder

On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, the Hellenic world was divided between the respective alliance systems of Athens and Sparta, a geopolitical remnant of the wars against the Persian Empire. The system was bipolar, but it was not “balanced” owing to the vastly different characters of the predominant powers. Athens had acquired a maritime empire that provided revenue and external sources of food, while Sparta remained an agrarian society centered on the Peloponnesus. And though Sparta was a famously martial society, in terms of policy it was surprisingly unwarlike, with no expansionist tendencies and an almost lethargic attitude toward external affairs. Sparta’s legendary warrior tradition was a means by which to organize society rather than an instrument of policy and conquest. In contrast, Athens was aggressive and enterprising, attributes probably reinforced by its reliance on its empire for tribute and provisions. The speech of the Corinthian envoys to the Spartan assembly succinctly compare the natures of the two city-states:

The Athenians are addicted to innovation, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. Again, they are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your wont is to attempt less than is justified by your power, to mistrust even what is sanctioned by your judgment, and to fancy that from danger there is no release (1.70).

In the language of neorealism, Sparta was a “status quo” power and Athens was an “aspiring hegemon.” However, a fragile peace endured thanks to the independence of a lesser power, Corcyra, from either of the two alliance systems.

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Generals’ Anonymous: “Why we Lost” by Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger

I read a large amount of material for which I have neither the time nor the inclination to write full-length reviews. However, that does not preclude me from sketching brief thoughts on a topic, such as an abstract, synopsis, memorable quote, etc. I will pretentiously refer to these posts as “epitomes” and categorize them as such. This post is the first of that content stream.

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About 15 years ago I read a book by then-Colonel Daniel Bolger titled Death Ground. The subject of the book was America’s infantry forces, their current status and possible futures, circa 1999. It was interesting enough, but it reeked of elitist chest-thumping as Bolger extolled the virtues of active duty soldiers and marines and disparaged the National Guard. The complexities of modern warfare, he argued, had made citizen-soldiers anachronisms.

Fifteen years, two wars and three stars later, Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger’s latest book, Why We Lost,  open with a very different tone:

I am a United States Army general, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous; step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem, to wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.

The book itself is a narrative history of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, structured around vignettes of particular battles or key events that illustrate the course of the campaign. Bolger commanded a division in Baghdad in 2009-10 and advisory operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but he never had theater-level command. He was senior enough that he was exposed to the inner machinations of both wars, but he has no personal “legacy” to defend with optimistic spin and revisionism. His account in unvarnished and credible. And he pulls no punches:

Our primary failing in the war involved generalship. If you prefer the war-college lexicon, we – guys like me – demonstrated poor strategic and operational leadership. For soldiers, strategy and operational art translate to “the big picture” (your goal) and “the plan” (how you get there). We got both wrong, the latter more than the former. Some might blame the elected and appointed civilian leaders. There’s enough fault to go around, and in this telling, the suits will get their share. But I know better, and so the rest of the generals. We have been trained and educated all our lives on how to fight and win. This was our war to lose, and we did.

Bolger’s central argument is that America failed at the most basic level of strategy by ignoring Sun Tzu’s dictum to “know the enemy, know thyself.” After 9/11, the U.S. had a choice on the nature of the upcoming campaign: a narrowly-defined effort against a small number of targets amenable to kinetic action, or a broad set of maximalist objectives with the ultimate goal of somehow eradicating terrorism. The U.S. selected the latter option, thus committing the U.S. military – trained and equipped for high-intensity regular warfare – into two long-term counterinsurgencies, in fractured Islamic societies, with no clear objectives or understanding of the enemy.

Master Sun put it simply: “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” We failed on both counts. I know I sure did. As generals, we did not know our enemy – never pinned him down, never focused our efforts, and got all too good at making new opponents before we’d handled the old ones…

Time after time, despite the fact that I and my fellow generals saw it wasn’t working, we failed to reconsider our basic assumptions. We failed to question our flawed understanding of our foe or ourselves. We simply asked for more time. Given enough months, then years, then decades – always just a few more, please – we trusted that our great men and women would pull it out. In the end, all the courage and skill in the world could not overcome ignorance and arrogance. As a general, I got it wrong. And I did so in the company of my peers.

This criticism of American strategy is very common, but not from the pen of a retired general who took part in the war, making it all the more trenchant.

However, this line of analysis is a thin thread through the entirety of the book, which is overwhelmingly a narrative history. Isolated from the vignettes, Bolger’s explanation of “why we lost” could fit in a lengthy newspaper op-ed. My impression is that he originally intended the book to be a straight history and that the publisher recommended the title to give it pertinence in light of the deteriorating situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Bolger obliged by bracketing the work with elaboration on a theme that otherwise exists thinly in the body of the text.

Still, Bolger is a gifted writer, and his book is worth reading as one of the first narrative histories of the “Global War on Terror.”

MG_Daniel_Bolger

“Hi. My name’s Daniel, and I have a problem…”

 

 

 

China in Alaska, part II: turning the other cheek

If foreign warships intruded into American territorial waters near a critical and undefended military base, you might expect that reasonable countermeasures be taken, like shadowing the vessels with military aircraft, dispatching some troops to shore up the garrison, and summoning the ambassador of the offending state to demand an explanation. But this is 21st century America, where NASA’s primary mission is offering therapy to the Muslim world and international LGBT rights are considered a national security priority.

Nothing frustrates this Administration more than the intrusion of great power politics on its post-modern foreign policy agenda. Recently this was on display by President Obama’s reaction to the Russian intervention in Syria (“This is not some superpower chessboard contest”). Last month it was visible in the confused response to the PLAN’s Alaskan pleasure cruise.

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China in Alaska, part I: sending a message

Nearly seven years ago, when China deployed ships to the Gulf of Aden to join international counterpiracy operations, I remarked on the historical significance of the occasion as China resumed blue water operations for the first time in centuries.

We’ve come a long way in seven years. In August, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sent seven ships to conduct exercises with the Russian navy in the waters near Vladivostok, including an ampbibious landing drill with 200 Chinese marines. Joint exercises of this sophistication and ambition are newsworthy in their own right, but the real story occurred after the training concluded on 28 August. The PLAN flotilla took a bit of a detour on the way home.

On 2 September the flotilla was reported to be operating in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to that state. This caused a great deal of confusion and consternation among U.S. officials, who purported to be baffled as to why the PLAN was operating so far north:

US government officials acknowledged the curious timing of the Chinese ships navigating in the waters near Alaska at a time when President Obama is there, but White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Beijing’s intent was still unclear.

The Pentagon official said there were a “variety of opinions” on how to interpret the Chinese ships’ deployment.

“It’s difficult to tell exactly, but it indicates some interest in the Arctic region,” the official said. “It’s different.”

Not to worry, though. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reassured the press, three different times, that the vessels were not behaving in a threatening manner and were staying in international waters.

Except they were not. On 4 September the Wall Street Journal reported that the flotilla had, in fact, entered U.S. territorial waters as it transited the Aleutian Islands and steamed south into the Pacific. This seemed to increase the confusion among American observers:

“This is clearly a signal,” said David Titley, a retired rear admiral who is a professor at Penn State University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Of what, Titley said, it’s difficult to say, but he suggested that China may be seeking to establish itself as a player in the growing commercial activity in the Arctic.

There are two interesting dimensions to this story. First, what Beijing was actually signaling by its foray into U.S. waters; second, the bemused and feeble American reaction, which suggests an unspoken political imperative to avoid giving offense to China.

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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.

dominoes

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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Good Reading: “Modern Military Strategy” by Elinor Sloan

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.

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