The Shadow of War

14 July 2011


War is the institutionalization of human violence. And, as anyone knows who has taken the trouble to reflect on human institutions, the explicit and systematic features of a given institutions almost always call forth a parallel institution that exists in the shadow of the acknowledged institution. That is to say, the formal institution is mirrored by an informal institution, which latter is a response to the brute fact of the former. War is no exception to this rule. According to the logical principle of Dictum de Omni et Nullo, we can make the following derivation:

(1) All wars are institutionalizations of violence, and
(2) All institutions cast an institutional shadow, hence
(3) All wars cast an institutional shadow.

What, then, is the shadow of war?

The institution of war has been dominated by what is usually called conventional warfare. The very idea of conventional war, however, was called into question by the emergence, in the mid-twentieth century, of the possibility of purely strategic war waged by strategic nuclear weapons systems: no soldiers, no battles, no mobilization, no tactics, no operations, just mutually assured destruction. There is a sense in which the development of conventional war and its technologies of man-made mass death (to borrow a term of Edith Wyschogrod’s excellent book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death) could be said to have “called forth” this purely strategic (and therefore unconventional) form of war, but this is not what I want to consider in the present context.

The shadow of war that I have in mind is not the ever-present looming threat of nuclear annihilation, but the emergence and now nearly pervasive character of irregular warfare, in all its proliferating forms: guerrilla war, asymmetrical war, terrorism, and insurgency. The shadow of war employs conventional weaponry, in so far as it does not employ WMD, but it is not conventional warfare. Is the shadow of war unconventional warfare (UW)? Is the shadow of war asymmetrical warfare? Is the shadow of war irregular warfare?

We can define symmetrical warfare as peer-to-peer conflict, and from this point of departure we can define asymmetrical warfare as anything other than peer-to-peer conflict — in brief, non-peer conflict. It is not so easy to arrive at a similarly neat distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare. This is because, while the peer-to-peer concept can be given an absolute formulation in terms of identity, with imperfect real-world instances approximating identity to some degree (or perhaps invoking essential identity, notwithstanding contingent differences), the difference between conventional and non-conventional warfare is a much more gradual scale in which incremental, contingent differences are important.

If we define conventional war in terms of the absence of WMD, hence the presumed absence of man-made mass death, we run into problems with the history of wars of annihilation and extermination. What WMD have changed is not the fact of annihilation, but the cost and ease of annihilation. When time was required to annihilate or destroy the enemy, circumstances could intervene, or mercy might even be shown after the spectacle of great suffering. In pre-modern warfare, for example, it was traditional to loot capture cities, but it was also traditional to place limits on this looting — three days was the custom.

The shadow of war, as I am attempting to sketch it here, consists of a range of responses to vulnerabilities that appear in the dominant paradigm of war due to its institutional character. The dominant paradigm of war changes over time, but also remains recognizable across its changing forms. When the Greek city-states met the Persians in battle, this was the dominant paradigm of warfare as it existed at that time, although the combatants were city-states and an empire. Today the dominant paradigm of war is that of peer-to-peer engagements between nation-states.

The spectrum of responses to the vulnerabilities of institutionalized warfare that constitutes the flexible, opportunistic, and non-institutionalized shadow of war can be irregular, unconventional, or asymmetrical by turns, as circumstances dictate. Precisely because the shadow of war is a response that seeks to exploit the vulnerabilities of an institutionalized use of force, it is anything and everything that the institution is not.

War institutionalizes violence by a number of expedients, including, but not limited to, a clearly defined chain of command (i.e., an institutionalized command structure), an institutionalized organizational structure, standardization of training, standardization of uniforms, standardization of arms, standardization of tactics (otherwise known as “doctrine”), and countless other forms of standardization, organization, and institutionalization.

The first of these items above — an institutionalized command structure with a clearly defined chain of command — is formalized in the canonical nine principles of war adopted by the US military (there are many different formulations of the accepted principles of war, and these formulations overlap and intersect) as unity of command. The US Army Field Manual 3-0 Operations, dated June 2001, defines unity of command as follows:

For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander.

4-44. Developing the full combat power of a force requires unity of command. Unity of command means that a single commander directs and coordinates the actions of all forces toward a common objective. Cooperation may produce coordination, but giving a single commander the required authority unifies action.

4-45. The joint, multinational, and interagency nature of unified action creates situations where the military commander does not directly control all elements in the AO. In the absence of command authority, commanders cooperate, negotiate, and build consensus to achieve unity of effort (see JP 3-0; FM 6-22).

Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0 Operations, dated June 2001

We see here that unity of command is defined in terms of the objective — “For every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander.” — which is itself the first principle of war, and the same Field Manual 3-0 defines objective as follows:

Direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective.

4-35. At the operational and tactical levels, objective means ensuring all actions contribute to the goals of the higher headquarters. The principle of objective drives all military activity. When undertaking any mission, commanders should have a clear understanding of the expected outcome and its impact. At the strategic level, this means having a clear vision of the theater end state. This normally includes aspects of the political dimension. Commanders need to appreciate political ends and understand how the military conditions they achieve contribute to them.

This is a highly edited extract from the text. The reader is encouraged to peruse the whole text in detail, which incorporates concerns of restraint, legitimacy, and prudence in pursuit of the objective.

The objective must, in turn, be understood in the context of the the offensive action taken to secure the objective:

Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative.

4-38. Offensive action is key to achieving decisive results. It is the essence of successful operations. Offensive actions are those taken to dictate the nature, scope, and tempo of an operation. They force the enemy to react. Commanders use offensive actions to impose their will on an enemy, adversary, or situation. Offensive operations are essential to maintain the freedom of action necessary for success, exploit vulnerabilities, and react to rapidly changing situations and unexpected developments.

Ideally the principles of war work together in a synthesis that applies maximum combat power to attaining the objective of the operation, and we can see how the definitions of the principles of war rely on each other in a way that makes them more than the sum of their parts. So far, so good.

But there are limits as to what can be achieved within the institutionalized context of war, and the institutions that engage in wars, i.e., armies and their proxies. I have given the above definitions so that the reader can appreciate the fundamental tension that emerges in all military institutions between unity of command and individual initiative.

That nothing at all (or next to nothing) could be achieved without unity of command I do not dispute, but any engagement is fluid, consisting of continually changing circumstances, and history teaches us that it is battlefield commanders who take individual initiative who usually win battles, and commanders who fail to seize an opportunity can be indirectly responsible for defeat.

The more rigid, bureaucratic, and formalized a military institution becomes — developments that usually correspond to age — the more individual initiative is discouraged. Any bright, young leader attempting to make his way through a bureaucracy rapidly learns that innovation, imagination, and and unconventional thinking are qualities that result not in promotion but in exclusion. The rebel or the revolutionary must take on vested interests, and vested interests are powerful and rarely lose.

The tension between unity and command and individual initiative is especially present in coalition warfare, which, since the end of the Second World War and the establishment of international security protocols, is rapidly becoming the dominant paradigm of conventional war. Even during the Second World War, with its clearly defined objectives, there were conflicts within the command structure of the Allies. Without the unity of purpose furnished by the enemy as implacable and as odious as the Nazis, coalition warfare becomes even more fractious and even more difficult to hold together under a single unified command.

Contrast the balky, awkward, ponderous moves of coalition warfare to the proliferating asymmetrical insurgencies found around the globe today, which are light, nimble, flexible, and highly responsive to the growing bureaucracy of military forces subject to layers of command often at odds with each other despite the formal unity of command that is supposed to flow from a defined chain of command, and it is no wonder that these irregular forces so often humiliate the most powerful forces that can be brought to bear against them.

Insurgency is the most decentralized form of warfare, lacking basic organizational structure, without a chain of command, and with no unity of command beyond the squad level. Insurgents are unified not by an institution or an individual, but by an idea. As long as that idea is interpreted in roughly the same way, and it remains a vivid presence to all the combatants fighting under its banner, this minimal organization is far more flexible than anything that can be brought against it. This was a true of communist and nationalist insurgents of the twentieth century as it is true of successful insurgents today.

Formal structure — organization, chain of command, unity of command — predicated upon strict adherence to rules is especially vulnerable to surprise because structure, rules, and organization create consistency and therefore predictability. Irregular forces constitute themselves in response to this vulnerability, and as the formal command structure responds to surprises according to rules and established procedures they entrench their predictability and vulnerability to surprise even while instructing their opponents in the doctrine of response.

This is the shadow of war, and as the paradigm of conventional war continues to approximate coalition war undertaken at the behest international bodies seeking to enforce international security arrangements, the shadow, the reflex, and the reaction to this evolutionary development toward greater political comprehensivity (and therefore a more compromised chain of command) will be revealed in the conflict of these enemies as they grow apart by adapting to each other.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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