Azerbaijani legionnaire from the 804th Azerbaijani infantry battalion

The Second World War will be studied by historians as long as human civilization endures, since the scope and scale of the conflict puts it in a class by itself, but what kind of war was it? What kind of war was the Second World War? It is a deceptively simple question, since it implies that there is some kind of taxonomy of warfare, and that the Second World War neatly fits into some taxon. Thus the question implicitly appeals to theories of war that remain unstated in the question. One could relativize the inquiry with some formulation like, “According to a Marxist perspective, what kind of war was the Second World War?” This would at least make our theoretical framework explicit, and would narrow the inquiry to a manageable scope. I’m going to tackle the subject in an open-ended way, without doing this.

A North African soldier from the Free Arabian Legion and a Cossack volunteer.

Some years ago I formulated a taxonomy of war (largely building on the ideas of Anatol Rapoport) that schematically distinguished between political war (human agency), eschatological war (non-human agency), catastrophic war (human non-agency), and naturalistic war (non-human non-agency) — I didn’t systematically develop this schema in relation to war to the point of writing a post on each kind of war, but cf. More on Clausewitz, Three Conceptions of History, The Naturalistic Conception of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception (every conception of history implies a conception of war, and vice versa; moreover, every conception of war implies a conception of civilization, and vice versa). While this schematism possesses an enviable neatness (when systematically laid out), in retrospect it appears to me as being a bit too neat, and therefore not always helpfully reflective of the messiness of the actual world. And war is perhaps the messiest manifestation of the actual world.

Soldiers of the Free Indian Legion of the German Army, with a Luftwaffe Member, 1944.

If we abandon the attempt to explicitly formulate a taxonomy, we can distinguish wars of conquest, imperialist wars, resource wars, geostrategic wars, ideological wars, genocidal wars or wars of extermination, and so on. This grab bag of classifications is not unlike our classifications of science — empirical science, natural science, physical science, social science, historical science, and so on — in so far as there is no overarching conception that systematically relates the parts to each other and to the whole. For a messy world, there is a certain inevitability to messy systems of classification, but our taxonomies of classification should be no more messy than is absolutely necessary. Knowledge inevitably involves imposing a template on the messiness of actuality in order to organize our experience rationally and coherently, so that the more systematic our organization of experience, the more knowledge we could be said to possess of this experience. Taxonomies of war seek to systematically organize our experience of war into knowledge of war, and from knowledge of war comes efficacy in waging war.

The Clausewitzean approach is to define war and then to refine and elaborate the definition in order to illuminate the nature of war, rather than to converge upon a taxonomy of kinds of war. In Book Two, Chapter One of On War, Clausewitz does discuss the classification of war, and Clausewitz did note some kinds of war, for example, his distinction between absolute and real war. In Book Eight of On War Clausewitz comes to focus on the outcomes of war as persistently as he focused on the definition of war in Book One, and in focusing on outcomes Clausewitz distinguished between real war and absolute war, which latter is often assimilated to Erich Ludendorff’s conception of “totale Krieg”. (An interesting discussion of this can be found in “The Idea of Total War: From Clausewitz to Ludendorff” by Jan Willem Honig; also cf. “Controversy: Total War” by Daniel Marc Segesser.)

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-295-1560-22, Nordfrankreich, Turkmenische Freiwillige, photograph by Karl Müller

Real war, for Clausewitz (and in contradistinction to absolute war), is what we today would call limited war, but absolute war is the paradigm of war and the criterion against which any other conception must be measured, here expressed in the context of Clausewitz’s political conception of war: “If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form.” (Book Eight, Chapter 6, B) However, no great emphasis is given to the classification of war in Clausewitz. This has left taxonomies of war underdeveloped in the post-Clausewitzean literature. If Carnap was correct that scientific concepts develop from taxonomic (classificatory), through comparative, to quantitative concepts (though we are under no obligation to accept this schema of scientific development, but at least it offers a framework), then the underdevelopment of taxonomic concepts for warfare represents a failure in the development of a truly scientific understanding of war.

We can adopt the Clausewitzean approach and begin with a definition of war, which then defines the class of all wars, and then we can decompose the class of all wars into subclasses that define kinds of war. Any good taxonomy (by which I mean any taxonomy useful and fruitful for research) will involve a schematization of a complex and ambiguous reality that results in simplification. One of the most difficult aspects of scientific abstraction is finding the “just right” point between too much fidelity to empirical fact, which makes schematization impossible, and over-simplification, which falsifies empirical reality to an unhelpful extent. Ideally we would want a principled classification that decomposes all wars into a finite number of classes, each of which is mutually exclusive of the others, and each of which exemplifies an unambiguous idea. The ideal of classification is rarely realized, so we are often thrown back on a classification based on contingent properties. There are several contingent properties that characterize the Second World War and so furnish us with the most familiar, even if not rigorous, classifications. These contingent properties do not result in mutually-exclusive, non-overlapping classes, which means that there is overlap among kinds of wars. The Second World War was an industrialized war, but the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War were also industrialized wars. It was a planetary-scale war, but The Seven Years’ War and the First World War were also both planetary-scale wars. From the Second World War being a planetary-scale war it follows that it was a war fought on multiple fronts and in multiple theaters among a wide variety of combatants drawn from many nation-states. The Second World War was more a war of maneuver than attrition, more about offense and initiative than defense and stagnation. In this it differs significantly from the First World War, but resembles the Napoleonic Wars.

Beyond a haphazard classification of war by overlapping contingent properties, there are reflective taxonomies that seek to organize our knowledge of war around principles of war, but which embody no overarching conception that unifies the principles employed. This is the status of Anatol Rapoport’s distinction among political, eschatological, and cataclysmic philosophies of war, mentioned above (but which I developed in accordance with an overarching conception of agency). Another example can be found in Ian Clark’s Waging War: A Philosophical Introduction (pp. 19-23), which distinguishes six concepts of war, as follows (the headings below are Clark’s, but the explanations and commentaries that follow each heading are mine), and which I will examine in relation to planetary-scale warfare:

War as instinctive violence — This could be called the evolutionary or biological conception of war. As Freud once wrote, “…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.” This was written long before evolutionary psychology had been formulated, but further work in evolution, biology, and psychology has underlined Freud’s assertion with voluminous evidence, including something like war fought among chimpanzees in the wild. If human beings are instinctively violent, then it should not be surprising that human beings organized by civilization should engage in organized violence on a scale proportional to their organization, and this is what was exhibited in the global industrialized wars of the twentieth century.

War as divination or legal trial — We could also call this “war as a decision procedure.” In so far as the decision procedure of war invokes divine sanction on its side, it also becomes an eschatological war, but it is at least arguable that its eschatological character is epiphenomenal in the context of war as a decision procedure. The point is to settle a dispute, and in so far as war has a decisive outcome (which is not always the case), the dispute is settled and the procedure of war has yielded a decision. In the case of a planetary-scale war of multiple theaters, there are multiple decisions simultaneously in pursuit of decision, and it cannot be expected that all of these outcomes will be decisive. This implies that planetary-scale war rarely if ever achieves an outcome that largely decides outstanding issues, hence the Second World War was followed by the Cold War.

War as disease — This closely corresponds to what Anatol Rapoport called the cataclysmic philosophy of war, but Clark makes a distinction between war as disease and war as cataclysm: a disease can be cured, whereas a cataclysm usually cannot be prevented, so that mitigation efforts focus instead on limiting the damage and cleaning up after the fact. War as disease suggests a cure, and is therefore an abolitionist conception, but it also suggests the possibility of pandemic. If human beings, or human societies, are infected with the disease of war, then war will be spread like a disease, and at times that disease will take on the properties of a pandemic. War understood as a pandemic is planetary-scale war of planetary-scale civilization.

War and social change — Clark glosses war as social change as war being either a measure or a means of social change. Although Clark mentions Comte and Schumpeter (focusing on economic development), this is essentially a Hegelian conception (or, if you prefer, a Marxist conception), since it is conflict that pushes the social dialectic forward; we cannot make social change without fulfilling all of the steps of the dialectic. If we look how far we have come, driven by conflict, it appears as a metric of that development; if look forward to social change yet to come, conflict appears as the means by which such change can be brought about. If we look forward to a planetary civilization, then only a planetary-scale dialectic, which involves planetary-scale war, can secure that end. This was once made very clear in some varieties of Marxism, which insisted that the peace of the communist millennium could come only after the world entire had experienced proletarian revolution and the planet entire has been unified on communist economic principles.

War as a political instrument of the state — This conception perfectly embodies the political philosophy of war, which we usually identify with the work of Clausewitz. For the political conception of war to culminate in a planetary-scale war, the political framework must be planetary, and this planetary-scale political framework has been taking shape since the Age of Discovery, with the industrial revolution providing the technological means for effectively acting on a planetary scale at human time scales. It could be argued that it was only the twentieth century that this framework and its means came to maturity, and as soon as this maturity was achieved, planetary-scale wars were waged. This argument, however, minimizes the role of human agency (it makes war look as inevitable as a violent instinct), which agency is one of the key features of the conception of war as a political instrument. In other words, there is an interesting overlap between the most agency-centered conception of war and the least agent-centered conceptions of war.

War as regulator of the international system — This might also be called war as the invisible hand, as the parties waging war are, by waging war, performing a function that restores the balance of power, though through no intention or plan of the parties to the conflict (Clark does not make this connection). If war is waged as the action of the invisible hand of the international system to maintain its own viability and stability, then we would also expect instances of “market failure” in which the invisible hand ceased to function. In cases of political failure (say, the failure of conception of war as a political instrument, above), the wars waged in the wake of political failure would fail to restore balance of power and confer viability and stability on the international system, cascading into planetary-scale war now free of the mechanisms that had once governed its scale and conduct (being much like the concept of war as a disease).

In the above taxonomy, there is no obvious place for what Rapoport called the eschatological philosophy of war, except as briefly mentioned under war as divination, where the eschatological aspect is epiphenomenal. We could place eschatological war under instinct or divination or elsewhere; the point isn’t to find a place for it, but to point out how haphazard taxonomies usually miss something important and fail to fully clarify that which they exhibit as central. Still, some attempt to give order to our experience is better than no attempt at all. Sometimes the only way to proceed is to work with a haphazard framework, revising and refining it with further experience and evidence, until either it converges on an effective taxonomy, or the additional experience and evidence forces a model crisis and a paradigm shift, with a new taxonomy emerging from the paradigm shift.

As the largest war of human history in scope and scale, the Second World War was also the messiest war, and therefore the most difficult to classify, but in hindsight (because of its salience in our consciousness of war) it has become a war understood in schematic terms in which the messiness is progressively erased from historical memory. Even the Cold War, in all its complexity, was simpler than the Second World War, because of the planetary-scale division between the US and the USSR was, at its basis, an us-against-them conflict, and could be reduced to this schematic dyad. The Second World War cannot be reduced to a dyad; it was a war with many fronts, many theaters, many belligerents, and many motivations for participation. When Nazi Germany set its war machine in motion and it was evident to all that this was a formidable force, there was probably a strong sense of inevitability about ultimate German victory in the war. When Poland and France had fallen and the British had retreated at Dunkirk without any means of striking the Germans except for their long-ranger bombers, and with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact keeping the Soviet Union out of the war, “Fortress Europe” looked secure, and the burden fell upon those on the outside Fortress Europe to penetrate its defenses. When the Allies did begin to penetrate the defenses of Fortress Europe, and the Soviet Union entered the war after Operation Barbarossa, the Germans had to seek more manpower for their armies.

Bosnian soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS “Handschar”

It was a relatively straight-forward matter to recruit from Soviet and Soviet bloc POWs, as many of them were passionately anti-Bolshevik and had no love for the Soviet Union. Promised the opportunity to fight for the freedom their native homelands from Soviet tyranny, many joined. These volunteers were opportunistic, not ideological. The volunteers from western European nation-states, by contrast, were more ideologically driven, though not always in the way one might guess. There were two Waffen-SS divisions of Scandinavian volunteers, the 5th Wiking and the 11th Nordland, and the different circumstances of the Scandinavian nation-states, which were very different indeed, influenced the character of the volunteers for Germany. The Finns fought the Russians in the Winter War of 1939, and thousands of Swedes volunteered to fight in Finland against the Russians, so when Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and went to war with the Russians, Finland became an ally of Germany (until the Moscow Armistice of 19 September 1944), one of the Axis powers, and Finland then became a “pipeline” for fighters to join the Axis cause. Sweden remained resolutely neutral throughout the war, but Norway was occupied up until the very end, and occupied Norway was governed by Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with treachery. Quisling was an interesting figure, as he was not an opportunistic fascist nor even an anti-Semitic fascist; Quisling belonged more to ideological fascism, and even to the mystical and esoteric side of Nazism; one suspects he would have been much more comfortable with Heidegger than with Hitler or Himmler.

Soldiers of the Turkestan Legion.

The German use of foreign legions was no doubt utterly cynical, which is to say, it was pragmatic; it was equally cynical (i.e., equally opportunistic) on the part of those who sought to hitch their wagon to a star by jumping on the bandwagon of what seemed to be the most powerful military force on the planet. The Origins of the Second World War by A. J. P. Taylor, argued that Hitler himself was an opportunist, not driven by fanaticism or an insane lust for destruction, but was responding to geopolitical imperatives to which any German politician would have had to answer. Taylor’s book was controversial in the extreme (the response to it was not unlike the intensity of the response to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem), and only time will tell its eventual reputation. Taylor’s arguments aside, we should question the idea that any war — and most especially a war as large and as complex as the Second World World — must be pigeon-holed as one and only one kind of conflict. There is the possibility that a war might be one kind of war for one of the combatants, and another kind of war entirely for another of the combatants. This is most obviously the case when a war of extermination on the part of one party to a conflict is a war of survival for the other party; those fighting only to survive need not exterminate their rivals, though they may well come to desire this end. However, it also can be the case that, when an ideological war is being fought by two or more parties of the conflict, other parties join the conflict for opportunistic reasons. This was manifestly the case during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR were locked in an ideological struggle, but third world proxy wars which the great powers attempted to contain within ideological bounds inevitably became mired both in local struggles as well as opportunistic conflicts.

Chiang Wei-kuo, adopted son of Chiang Kai-shek, attended a German military academy and commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.

Because of the diversity and multiplicity of war, there is no unity and clarity of purpose at the largest scales. For a fire team of soldiers caught in a skirmish, there is perfect unity and clarity of purpose, but this purpose doesn’t scale beyond a certain limit. The grand strategies of nation-states, kingdoms, and other political agents, constitute clarity of purpose in so far as the grand strategies themselves are clear, and impose a measure of clarity on those wars that have their origins in grand strategy, but, once a war has started, the grand strategy of any one of the parties to the conflict cannot contain the conflict within the grand strategy parameters of the originating party. The grand strategy can continue to guide developments in a war as it progresses, and so can confer a rough directionality on the conflict, but even this directionality can evaporate if the political agent attempting to pursue its grand strategy begins to lose the conflict. Precisely this occurred in the Second World War. The ideological aims of the Nazi party were rendered ambiguous by the growing scale of the conflict, and eventually become meaningless. Whether the ideological aims of political parties were ever causes of events, or whether they were, rather, responses to events — symptoms of a disease, as it were — may be a chicken-and-egg problem.

Original caption: “Treu der Kosaken-Tradition Oberfeldwebel Nicolas Balanowski, kämpft wie viele seiner Landsleute, in den Reihen der landeseigenen Verbände gegen seine früheren Unterdrücker, den Bolschewisten. Getreu der alten Kosakentradition, trägt er noch immer die Kosaken-Mütze.” In English: “True to the Cossack tradition, Sergeant Nicolas Balanowski, like many of his compatriots, fights in the ranks of the state’s associations against his former oppressors, the Bolsheviks. True to the old Cossack tradition, he still wears the Cossack hat.”

The Second World War was many wars — Theodore Ropp wrote that, “The Second World War consisted of four related major wars, each presenting separate military-political problems.” (War in the Modern World, New York: Collier, 1971, p. 314) — and these many wars of the Second World war each had a distinctive character, hence even more diversity and multiplicity than are typically to be found in smaller conflicts. On the western front, it was a straight-forward political war of the kind that had repeatedly erupted between Germany and France; on the eastern front it was a war of extermination, not unlike the German campaign in German Southwest Africa or the British campaign against the Boers during the Boer War. On the northern front, it was a static war of occupation in Norway, while on the North African front it was a mobile war of mechanized armor against mechanized armor, and in the Pacific Theater further complexities were added by the multiplicity of colonial powers and their subject peoples who were involved.

One useful distinction that can be made among kinds of war is that between methods of war on the one hand, and, on the other hand, kinds of war based on causes and objectives (which, for purposes of brevity, I will call causal taxonomies). In my post Hybrid Warfare I included a list of seventeen distinct forms of warfare recognized by the US DOD and NATO — Antisubmarine Warfare, Biological Warfare, Chemical Warfare, Directed-Energy Warfare, Electronic Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, Irregular Warfare, Mine Warfare (also called Land Mine Warfare), Multinational Warfare, Naval Coastal Warfare, Naval Expeditionary Warfare, Naval Special Warfare, Nuclear Warfare (also called Atomic Warfare), Surface Warfare, Unconventional Warfare, and Under Sea Warfare — all of which are methods of warfare, constituting a methodological taxonomy. Needless to say, the US DOD and NATO do not recognize wars of extermination as a distinct mode of warfare, but it could be conceived as such. More importantly, these methods of war tell us very little about causal taxonomies of war, even when methods and outcomes are mutually implicated (as in genocidal wars of extermination). The taxonomy of war employed by Ian Clark, discussed above, clearly draws a connection between methodological taxonomies and causal taxonomies, as each kind of war suggests methods of waging war, or methods of mitigating war, but for Clark, as I read him, it is the causal taxonomies that are fundamental, and the methods of waging war follow from these causal imperatives. Methodological taxonomies may satisfy war planners and unify soldiers and command structures, but they do not touch on the motivations of the mass societies of planetary civilization to wage war.

Planetary-scale war like the Second World War was not possible until there was planetary-scale civilization. The planetary-scale war that was the Second World War was both enabled by planetary-scale civilization and ultimately extended planetary-scale civilization (suggesting Clark’s war as social change), as became clear in the post-war period when there was a new impetus to create planetary institutions — the UN, the EU, and eventually the WTO and the World Criminal Court, inter alia. As I have argued on many occasions, our planetary-scale civilization is not politically or legally unified, although it is culturally, technologically, economically, and scientifically unified. Within a planetary-scale civilization, Huntington’s “clash of civilization” thesis is meaningless, and therefore stillborn. On a planet well on the way to integrating planetary-scale civilization there could be wars that break out between and among partially assimilated remnants of civilizations (formerly isolated regional civilization), which would constitute the trailing edge of Huntington’s clash of civilizations, and which latter could be said to have peaked in the 16th or 17th century. In this planetary context one can certainly imagine conflicts over control of Makinder’s world-island (“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island. Who rules the World Island commands the World.”), which would be essentially planetary-scale wars with planetary-scale methods and objectives, but which were not wars breaking out along the fault lines of civilizations.

Another way to think about wars in terms of outcomes (causal taxonomies) is that at least part of what makes a war the kind of war that it is, is the kind of peace that is possible following upon the end of the war (the actual outcome in contradistinction to the envisioned outcome, i.e., the war aim). While a war may begin with clear war aims, the war itself may cloud these war aims or make their achievement impossible, so that the actual outcome of the war is no longer recognizably related to the war aims of any of the parties to the conflict at the initiation of hostilities. In the case of the Second World War, the peace that followed was itself a war: the Cold War. Planetary-scale peace at the end of planetary-scale war came at the cost of small-scale regional wars and an arms race on a planetary scale. The decisive defeat of the Axis Powers was an unambiguously achieved war aim, but it was achieved by allies that were as ideologically opposed to each other as they were opposed to the Axis Powers. This set the stage for the conflicts to follow. Peace and reconstruction was geographically regional (not on a planetary scale, like the war itself) and was ideologically driven to a much greater extent than the pragmatic conduct of the war itself. Before the war was over Ernst Jünger had written, “It may safely be said that this war has been humanity’s first joint effort. The peace that ends it must be the second.” (The Peace, Hinsdale: Henry Regnery, 1948, p. 19) This was not to be the case, though FDR and the US tried to realize this ideal.

Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt in Paris.

A familiar narrative (especially to Americans) is that the Second World War was “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” (i.e., it was a just war, to invoke an Augustinian conception). This propagandistic conception of the Second World War is, in a sense, the mirror image of the Second World War as a great ideological conflict between lofty ideals on the one hand, and, on the other hand, naked evil, belies the pragmatism with which the war was fought and alliances were made, in which the war was rather a conflict driven by geopolitical imperatives — admittedly, geopolitical concerns extrapolated to a planetary scale, but still a conflict more about the distribution of ocean basins and mountain ranges than about ideology. The narrative of the Second World War as “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” elides the catastrophic policy failures of both the First and Second World Wars, and the peace settlements that followed upon them, which were arguably invidious to the grand strategies of the western nation-states. The Cold War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the Second World War in the same way that the Second World War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the First World War. However, it is at least arguable that the Cold War was fought more effectively than the world wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The General Assembly of the United Nations Convenes for the first time on 10 January 1946 in London.

The ability of human beings to conceptualize and to act upon planetary-scale ideals is noble and inspiring, but a failure to distinguish between ideals that can be brought into being at the present, and ideals that must wait for another time, when conditions are right for their realization, constitutes a failure of wisdom at least proportional to nobility of conceptualizing an unattainable ideal. When Wilson arrived in Paris in 1919, and when FDR traveled to Yalta in 1945, both American presidents were prepared to make major strategic concessions in order to bring robust international institutions into being, and this willingness to sacrifice US national interests to a larger vision for peace on a planetary scale, following upon war on a planetary scale, put the US at a disadvantage. The outcome could well have been better for all if these presidents had exclusively focused on US national interests and the national interests of US allies rather than upon a trans-national ideal. Other parties to the negotiations in Paris and Yalta cannot be blamed for taking advantage of US willingness to bargain away its interests, and the interests of its allies, in order to secure the future of international institutions, which no one else took seriously. Of course, it must also be noted that both Wilson and FDR believed that the successful implementation of these international institutions would be in the strategic interest of the US, and many would argue that the US, as the leading post-war international power, got at least part of what it bargained for in the form of international institutions.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Discord Invitation

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Five Years!

5 November 2013


Charles Demuth figure 5

Today I celebrate the fifth anniversary of this blog. I hope you will join me in toasting the end of another year and the beginning of a new year of blogging and ideas.

When I started this blog it was something of a spontaneous amusement, an impulse. My posts were short, simple and required little or no research. I purposefully wrote about matters that interest me while avoiding the “important” ideas I kept in my notebooks for book projects, which I saw at that time the primary beneficiaries of my intellectual effort.

Over time, the blog posts expanded, became longer and more detailed, and required more research. I still save aside material I plan to put into manuscripts, but the topics with which I began — mostly strategy and civilization — now have a much higher profile in my thought and are at least equal beneficiaries of my intellectual effort. In retrospect, I’m glad that I started to write about civilization here, as these thoughts have expanded over time and have pushed me unexpectedly in interesting directions.

With my posts getting longer, I have been posting far less often — once or twice a week. I’ve also been blogging at Tumblr, which has a very different demographic (meaning that I reach a different crowd there than I do by blogging here on WordPress). Also, in the past year I’ve had posts appear on the Transhumanity blog and on Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams blog (where, by the way, another post by me is scheduled to appear this coming Friday).

Over the past year the hits to my blog took a major hit, and I have gone from an average of nearly two thousand hits per day to an average of around four hundred or fewer per day. Interestingly, most of the lost traffic seems to have been image searches, so the few of you who come here to read and to reflect is perhaps about the same number as in earlier years.

I guess you could say that I write for my handful of subscribers — those few who return to read, spending precious and irretrievable moments of life to find something in what I have spent precious and irretrievable moments of life to write. That is a fair bargain — a part of my life for a part of your life — and as there are few fair bargains in the world today, I should count myself fortunate (which I do).

Nietzsche wrote, “…everywhere else I have my readers — nothing but first-rate intellects and proven characters, trained in high positions and duties; I even have real geniuses among my readers. In Vienna, in St. Petersburg, in Stockholm, in Copenhagen, in Paris, in New York — everywhere I have been discovered; but not in the shallows of Europe, Germany.” (Ecce Homo)

Nietzsche could perhaps speak in the plural; I must speak in the singular. I may not have readers (in the plural) in these celebrated cultural capitals of the world, but I do know from my statistics (which show repeat visits) that I have a reader in Invercargill, Southland, New Zealand, and in Mercer Island, Washington; in Washington D.C. at the Catholic University of America, and a reader in Groningen in the Netherlands; I have a reader in that ancient center of Western civilization, Greece, and in the ancient centers of learning in Paris, France, and Oxford, England; I have a reader in the Balkans, in Belgrade, Serbia, and elsewhere in the Balkans in Skopje, Macedonia; I even have a reader in Hillsboro, Oregon, just minutes away from my office, as well as a reader elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

To all of you — those who return, and those who stop by only a single time — my thanks.

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signboard on sidewalk 5 years

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Four More Years!

5 November 2012


Today marks the four year anniversary of Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon, so I would like to invite my readers to celebrate the occasion with me. And I have been given a gift for my four year anniversary. In the US, the traditional four year anniversary gift is linen and silk (elsewhere in the Anglophone world, it’s fruit and flowers in the UK). Well, I didn’t receive linen or silk, fruit or flowers, and, no, I didn’t get the brand new Maserati GranTurismo MC Stradale that’s on my wish list, but I did have my statistics for visits recently pass the one million hits mark, which is the best gift for which I could reasonably hope.

You know you want one, so don’t try to pretend otherwise.

My hits on Statcounter turned over a million on 28 October, while my hits on WordPress turned over a million on 30 October. Statcounter obviously counts a little differently, as I started it a year after I started this blog. I racked up about 30,000 hits the first year, so the Statcounter tallies don’t even include this first year’s worth of hits.

Also, Statcounter shows that my Tumblr blog only gets about one percent of the hits that my WordPress blog receives. I don’t doubt that there is a big difference in traffic between the two, but I know that a lot of Tumblr hits go uncounted because there are times when a post gets “liked” or “reblogged” on Tumblr when Statcounter has not recorded any hits to the post in question. On the other hand, the hits that Statcounter does record to my Tumblr blog come with a lot more detail than the recorded hits to my WordPress blog. For example, Statcounter will sometimes show me what search engine was used to find a post, what search terms were used, and what position in the search returns my post had. This has been a fascinating feature to me, and a surprising one. Some Tumblr posts that have never tallied a hit earlier through Statcounter come up at the number one search return for a particular set of terms.

What does a million hits really mean? Well, about 90 percent of all hits that this blog receives are the result of Google image searches, so it’s mostly people looking for pictures. So a million hits means that maybe a hundred thousand people visited for something other than a photograph. Of that hundred thousand, probably only one in ten stayed to read something, so a million hits probably means about 10,000 readers — about one percent of the total. Still, that’s not bad. As I’ve mentioned before, when you start from zero, everything above zero is pure gravy. I am a long way short of those websites that get a million hits in an hour, but I am a long way ahead in readership compared to before this blog.

For the “one percenters” out there who paused to read, possibly to reflect, occasionally to respond, and perhaps also to point and laugh, you have my thanks and my gratitude. I’ll keep writing, and I hope you’ll keep reading.

Fate willing, I look forward to four more years.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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What is strategic trust?

16 February 2012


We have all heard the slogans of contemporary diplomacy — “peaceful rise,” “responsible stakeholder,” and the rest — and now it seems that we have a new diplomatic euphemism: strategic trust. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping gave a speech shortly after his arrival in the US for an official visit in which he prominently employed the phrase. I have not been able to find a reliable full text of the speech online, but here are some excerpts:

“For us, strategic trust is the foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation, and greater trust will lead to broader cooperation.”


“We in China hope to work with the U.S. side to maintain close high-level exchanges. We hope to increase dialogue and exchange of views with the United States by making full use of our channels of communication, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogues, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and military-to-military exchanges…”


“By doing so, we can better appreciate each other’s strategic intentions and development goals, avoid misinterpretation and misjudgment, build up mutual understanding and strategic trust, and on that basis, fully tap our cooperation potential.”

And this from Chinese VP calls for deeper strategic mutual trust with U.S.:

“The development of cooperative partnership could be guaranteed only when the two sides view each other’s strategic intention and development path in a correct and objective way, respect each other’s core interests and accommodate each other’s major concerns, avoid making troubles for each other and do not cross over each other’s bottom lines…”

It might be unwise to read too much into these statements, since this was, after all, a highly publicized political speech. There was an interesting sketch of Xi Linping at Foreign Policy, Empty Suit: Xi Jinping is just another Communist Party hack by Yu Jie, that gives some context, and some weeks earlier, also on Foreign Policy, there was this highly entertaining piece, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars by Isaac Stone Fish, in which the author quotes this from Hu Jintao:

“Only if we resolutely follow the guidance of Marxism, and let the advanced culture of socialism guide the way, will we be able to lay the foundation for the cultural development of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

And then notes:

“Every year Chinese press wonders why their country can’t seem to win a Nobel Prize in literature or peace; ironically, in most cases banned from mentioning dissident writer Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000, or Liu Xiaobo, who won last year.”

We have, of course, seen this before. During the Cold War, the Soviet Bloc countries placed a great deal of emphasis upon winning medals at the Olympics, since this is politically non-controversial, even while the greatest writers and artists were harrassed, jailed, and sent to gulags. Every authoritarian state that seeks to control expression runs into this same difficulty.

Nevertheless, the idea of strategic trust is interesting on its own merits, whatever Xi Linping may have meant by it. Vice President Linping gave a fairly detailed sketch of how he would go about cultivating strategic trust, and I will certainly agree that maintaining both broad and deep communication over the long term will likely achieve something like this — although one may well wonder how broad and deep communication can be maintained with the Great Firewall of China intervening between the two countries, and with a vigorous Chinese censorship regime empowered to unilaterally delete content (sort of like Twitter has now empowered itself to act).

Some time ago, in On a Definition of Grand Strategy, I examined a conception of grand strategy has a certain amount of currency, and then went on to suggest that one of the functions of grand strategy is to make certain policies and practices thinkable or unthinkable:

Grand strategy, like ethics, not only both forbids and enjoins certain actions and classes of actions, but it also shapes our thinking, making certain options unthinkable while making other options possible. Alternative grand strategies may pick out different courses of action as unthinkable or possible. We recall that throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, all-out nuclear war was often simply referred to as “the unthinkable,” but there were people who did not see things that way at all. Castro is supposed to have urged Khrushchev to launch a nuclear strike, even if it meant the annihilation of Cuba, rather than back down in the Cuban missile crisis. For Castro, at this point in his life, nuclear war as in no sense unthinkable (I have read somewhere recently that he has since changed his mind).

With this sense of grand strategy in mind, we could characterize two distinct nation-states (or, more generally, political entities, whether state or non-state) as sharing a grand strategic vision if they share common conceptions of what is thinkable and that is unthinkable. Another way to put this would be to say that political entities share a grand strategic vision if they share political presuppositions.

Now, it is true that Xi Linping spoke in terms of strategy rather than grand strategy, so we need to take a step own in generality toward greater specificity to do justice to his remarks. I don’t think very many people would suppose that China and the US, representing profoundly different traditions of civilization, would ever substantially share a grand strategic vision on the level of common political presuppositions. Indeed, this is precisely what divides China and the US, and makes communication difficult — not impossible, but difficult, which means that an effort must be made, and even when an effort is made, misunderstanding will persist and can only be address by further communicative efforts.

It is, however, entirely possible (and, moreover, possible by the concrete means that Linping suggests) that China and the US could share substantial presuppositions on a strategic level short of grand strategy: mutual economic growth, rule of law, global political stability, avoidance of catastrophic military conflicts, the restriction of conflict to localized proxy wars conducted below the nuclear threshold, and so forth. All of these same elements were present during detente with the Soviet Union.

Such an arrangement is not only possible, but mutually beneficial. Strategic trust, then, would be a trust of each nation-state in the other that the other recognizes the mutually beneficial condition of shared strategic presuppositions, and will seek to perpetuate this arrangement.

What are the challenges to maintaining such strategic trust? Under the above-named conditions, there will always be a tension between strategy and grand strategy. Part of strategic trust would be trust in your strategic partner to remain focused on strategy and to allow grand strategy to take a distant second place. This is all about maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo, and maintaining a mutually agreeable status quo would be all about de-emphasizing, and perhaps even suppressing, revolutionary movements and macro-scopic social change that could upset the strategic apple cart.

Under these conditions, the US would continue to talk about Tibet and Taiwan, but would take no action beyond its existing commitments to Taiwan, while China would be careful not to use its growing economic influence to push the US out of its established positions of power. Like detente with the Soviet Union, all of this is doable, and perhaps it even represents the most likely short- and medium-term future, but it leaves open certain difficult questions like, for example, the Pacific theater

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Geopolitics and Biopolitics

2 February 2012


Geopolitics has been a focus of this forum since its inception, but it was always my intention to supplement a purely geopolitical approach with an attempt to take account of the role of ideas in history — past, present, and future. I have even attempted a precisification of some of the concepts of geopolitics in a few posts on theoretical geopolitics. Thus while I cannot call myself an unqualified geopolitical thinker, I certainly have geopolitical sympathies. If you like, you could call me a fellow traveler of those who practice geopolitics sensu stricto.

It would be easy to find weaknesses in the geopolitical perspective, and many are the critics who have dismissed geopolitics as geographical determinism (that is, when it is not otherwise being roundly condemned as a pseudo-science). In fact, geopolitics should be understood in parallel to any form of abstract thinking: it brings a certain clarity of focus to a tightly restricted domain of concerns, but this focus and clarity is purchased at the cost of excluding certain considerations. The same is true of mathematics or logic or theoretical physics. Every abstract theory incorporates ellipses directly derivative of its abstractions; this being said, we usually get farther with our abstractions than without them. And I have argued many times that any theoretical grounding for one’s thought is probably better than no theoretical grounding at all. Geopolitics is simply one such theoretical grounding for thought.

There are many schools of geopolitics. Karl Haushofer perhaps represents the origin of explicitly thinking in geopolitical terms (there are other earlier geopolitical thinkers I will mention below), but Haushofer’s geopolitics is grounded in Germany’s terrestrial perspective as a land power of Eurasia, and Haushofer’s theories revolved around the control of the Eurasian continent. Not usually called a geopolitician, but standing in diametrical opposition to Haushofer is Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 was disproportionately influential during the period when the great powers of Europe were engaged in an arms race based on dreadnaught class battleships, which eerily foreshadowed the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. As Haushofer was the the terrestrial realm, Mahan was to the world’s oceans.

Perhaps the preeminent practitioner of geopolitics today is George Friedman, founder of Strategic Forecasting (keep in mind that I am talking about people who are real thinkers, and not celebrity politicians such as get named to Foreign Policy’s list of Top 100 Global Thinkers). I have referenced Freidman’s work many times in this forum, so my readers should be well familiar with him. There are some echoes of Alfred Thayer Mahan that occasionally surface in Friedman’s work, but Friedman’s focus upon and dedication to the geopolitical perspective — almost to the exclusion of all else — is a remarkable exercise in coherent and consistent strategic analysis. Thomas P. M. Barnett is another geostrategic thinker whom I have referenced, but he is less tightly focused on geography than Friedman.

Alfred Thayer Mahan – 27 September 1840 to 01 December 1914

There is something else that unites these strategic thinkers other than their dedication to a geopolitical perspective. At their best, all of these strategists stand above politics. William James once called philosophy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly (my personal favorite among the many definitions of the discipline). By the same token we could call strategy an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly about politics, and, in the same vein, I recently wrote on Twitter that The one unforgivable sin in strategy is to allow objectivity to become compromised by ideology. Everyone who thinks in strategic terms knows this — if they have not formulated it explicitly, they know it in their gut.

However. Indeed, however. There is a kind of political unity to the geopolitical school of thought that transcends geography. It is not an ideological politics, but rather a scholarly politics, if there is such a thing. One can guess what books geopolitical strategists read, and they probably read pretty much the same books (mainstream works of political science) as they probably look at the same maps. Just as importantly, they probably also have in common the books that they do not read. One suspects that they read mainstream works of scholarship, and that if they have taken the trouble to delve into alternative viewpoints, they probably haven’t understood very well what they were reading. It would be difficult to imagine, for example, Samuel P. Huntington, George Friedman, or Thomas P. M. Barnett reading Heidegger, Foucault, Delueze, or Derrida. (Few can be expected to master multiple domains of knowledge, especially when those domains involve incommensurable features.)

What do I mean by “alternative” viewpoints? There is a term of art if ever there was one. I am being a bit elliptical about this because I am trying to avoid political stereotypes, especially a distinction between left and right, since the left/right distinction is as antipathetic to geopolitical strategists as it is to their unsung alternatives. The closest we can come to identifying the distinction without falling back on political cliches is to invoke the distinction between analytical philosophy (which I sometimes call “Anglo-American analytical philosophy”) and continental philosophy. It is important to note that, while the distinction has its origins in geography, it is no longer a geographical distinction. There are analytical philosophers on the European continent, and there are continental philosophers aplenty in the US, Canada, and the UK.

Sometimes the analytical/continental distinction is treated as a mere accident of history, and that we group certain thinkers together because they went to the same schools or spoke the same language. Others treat the distinction as essential, and in making the distinction recognize an essential core of presuppositions shared on both sides of the divide. Of course, the distinction is a little of both — part accident of history, part essential to the thought. This distinction being made, then, I can say that geopolitical strategists stand in relation to their unsung alternatives as analytical philosophy is to continental philosophy.

Now, when I write that the alternatives to mainstream geopolitical thought are “unsung,” I only mean this in so far as strategy extends, because some of the thinkers I will mention are very well known, though not usually thought of as intellectual rivals to the tradition of geopolitics. Chief among those who offer a counter-veiling vision to that a geopolitics is Foucault, and what Foucault offers as an alternative is biopolitics (sometimes called bio-power). Foucault originated and elaborated biopolitics, though it appears as a mode of analysis and a way of understanding, never as a political doctrine or an ideology. In this, biopolitics is parallel to geopolitics, which is understood by its practitioners to be non-ideological.

Michel Foucault

The fons et orgio of biopolitics (and perhaps, for the moment, also the locus classicus) is “Right of Death and Power over Life,” which appeared as Part Five of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Here Foucault wrote:

“…starting in the seventeenth century, this power over life evolved in two basic forms; these forms were not antithetical, however; they constituted rather two poles of development linked together by a whole intermediary cluster of relations. One of these poles-the first to be formed, it seems–centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and its docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body. The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. The disciplines of the body and the regulations of the population constituted the two poles around which the organization of power over life was deployed.”

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, Part Five, “Right of Death and Power over Life,” Vintage, 1980, p. 139

It was actually a Swede, Johan Rudolf Kjellén, who coined the term “geopolitics.” Kjellén is not so well known as Friedrich Ratzel, Mahan, or Haushofer, but he did first formulate some of the seminal ideas of geopolitics, so much so that we might say that Kjellén stands in relation to geopolitics as Foucault stands in relation to biopolitics. Kjellén was also instrumental in formulating the organic conception of the state, which we will consider below.

There is something fundamental about geopolitics in so far as its theses are founded on the brute facts of the geography of the world (and these brute facts are also the source of the abstractions of geopolitical thought). There is also something fundamental about biopolitics, with its theses founded on the intimately familiar facts of life itself (which, taken out of geographical and historical context also involves abstraction). Foundationalist thought (and strategy is foundationalist thought in politics) may or may not be politically radical, but it is usually theoretically radical (in the sense that I attempted to formulate in Radical Rigor), and it is in this theoretical sense that both geopolitics and biopolitics are radical.

Radicalism (like abstraction) has its limits, and the radicalism of geopolitics as well as that of biopolitics is limited by the abstractions employed in the formulation of each discipline. How so? Let me try to explain. Geopolitics is, in large part (although not in its entirety), apologetics for the nation-state and the international order based upon the nation-state system. I have repeatedly emphasized in many contexts that, while the nation-state is putatively defined in terms of nationalism — implying a kind of ethno-socio-cultural unity) in actual fact the nation-state is geographically defined, and more particularly it is defined in terms of the territorial principle in law, with Weber’s legal monopoly on violence holding (ideally, though not always in fact) within the territorial boundaries of a given nation-state.

Here is how George Friedman has recently characterized the nation-state:

“A nation state… rests on two assumptions. The first is that the nation represents a uniquely legitimate community whose members share a range of interests and values. The second is that the state arises in some way from the popular will and that only that popular will has the right to determine the state’s actions. There is no question that for Europe, the principle of national self-determination is a fundamental moral value. There is no question that Greece is a nation and that its government, according to this principle, is representative of and responsible to the Greek people.”

George Friedman, Germany’s Role in Europe and the European Debt Crisis, January 31, 2012

Formulations in terms of a “uniquely legitimate community” and popular sovereignty leave a lot to be desired, but Friedman is not here writing a theoretical treatise; he is only setting the stage for a geopolitical analysis in which the nation-state is central. There are shades here of the organic theory of the state, and I say this not to try to cast aspersions on Friedman’s analysis (because of the unsavory use to which the organic theory of the state has been put), but only to bring out important implicit features in the nation-state system. Geopolitics as apologetics for the nation-state system marks the limit of the radicalism of geopolitics, and its acceptance of conventional, mainstream political thought such as you would encounter in any political science curriculum.

There are few if any explicit ideological defenses of the nation-state system. The nation-state system — its value and its validity — is an assumption, almost to the point of the very inability even to think of any alternative to this central assumption (other than well-known historical examples no longer at issue today, such as the city-state or the empire). For the theoretician who thinks within the assumptions of the nation-state system, alternatives are literally unthinkable.

Biopolitics operates with a different set of assumptions. Biopolitics has assumptions, but it does not share these assumptions (at least, not all of them) with geopolitics, and for biopolitics different scenarios are literally unthinkable because different theoretical foundations render different states of affairs incoherent. Whatever biopolitics is — and we cannot yet say in any detail what it is — it is not apologetics for the nation-state system.

While we cannot say much about biopolitics, we can say something about biopolitics, and one of the most interesting things that we can say is that, like geopolitics, it has certain debts to the organic theory of the state. Because biopolitics comes out of a loosely defined tradition that is sympathetic to collectivism, it tolerates the idea of the state as a whole that is greater than its parts, and in so far as the parts are individuals citizens of the state, these parts are subordinated to the whole. (While Foucault himself was scrupulous in maintaining his distance from the communists — unlike Sartre and, to a lesser degree, Merleau-Ponty, who allowed themselves to become apologists for Stalinism — others who have taken up the idea of biopolitics and bio-power have not been so scrupulous.) It could even be argued that bio-regionalism is an organic theory of the state purged of nationalist ideology.

We cannot say that the organic theory of the state is a common “core” to both geopolitics and biopolitics, but it is something in common, although the way in which the idea of state organicism is implemented is very different in these two diverse traditions of thought. Geopolitics would tolerate (or endorse) different compromises to individual freedom of action than biopolitics would tolerate (or endorse). The point is that there is a shared tolerance for the abridgement of liberty, though where that tolerance falls is different in each case.

The formulation of biopolitics as an explicit tradition of thought and analysis is a strategic trend of the first importance. It is, in fact, an event in metaphysical history — not so far reaching as the Copernican Revolution, but easily as far reaching as the idea and implementation of the nation-state system itself. While there is as yet no clear sign that those loosely unified protesters who feel both thwarted and disenfranchised by the contemporary institutions of the nation-state (which comprises all conventional and mainstream political activity) recognize in biopolitics a theoretical articulation of views that they didn’t even know that they held (until their “consciousness raising”), this joining of idea of implementation may yet come about.

The authentic sign of a grass roots movement (and perhaps also of a mass movement) is when the practice and theory emerge independently and only later recognize each other as both emerging from some more fundamental and shared impulse, one as the intellectual justification of a practice or set of practices, and the other as the implementation of one and the same existential orientation. This has not yet occurred with biopolitics, but it could occur, and, I would argue, it is likely to occur, because the kind of person who enters into street protests is likely to be eventually introduced to the kind of scholarship that is loosely affiliated with biopolitics, and not likely to be introduced to some other, alternative tradition.

We do not yet know if biopolitics has an historical destiny commensurate with that of geopolitics — we do not yet know if this is an idea that has legs — but we do know that it is loosely related to a perennial tradition of thought. The question then becomes whether biopolitics is a passing and evanescent expression of a perennial human point of intellectual reference, or if it is, in the contrary, the next transformative event that will take this perennial attitude in a new direction, and possibly also to new heights, extending the perennial tradition in new and unexpected ways.

It is entirely possible that one of the great ideological struggles of the coming century (and perhaps also the coming centuries) will be between geopolitics and biopolitics — or, rather, between the representatives of geopolitics and the representatives of biopolitics. In this case, biopolitics would come to represent what Fukuyama called, “a systematic idea of political and social justice” that differs from that of liberal democracy. It could be argued that we are already beginning to see the early signs of this struggle, as peoples increasingly find themselves in conflict with the nation-state the putatively represents their interests, and as a people they struggle against the nation-state.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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I am going to return to an implied definition of grand strategy found in Dr. Patrick Porter’s The Offshore Balancer in his post Lecture Notes: Grand Strategy. Here is a quote from that post, which I also quoted previously:

In a meeting with General Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, presidential candidate Obama said

‘My job, if I have the honour of being commander in chief, is going to be to look at the whole picture. I expect you, as the commander of our forces in Iraq, to ask for everything you need and more to ensure your success. That’s what you owe the troops who are under your command. My job is… I’ve got to choose. Because I don’t have infinite resources.’

That’s it right there, and with that we can probably knock it on the head for an early lunch. But I probably should run out the clock with some details.

I previously wrote about this in On a Definition of Grand Strategy, where I focused on the role a strategic vision has not only in terms of eliminating or passing over certain alternatives, but also in formulating or settling upon certain alternatives. Like a system of ethics, that not only enjoins us to desist from certain activities but also requires us to perform certain activities, grand strategy is not purely negative; it too, like ethics, does render some alternatives unthinkable, but at the same time it renders other alternatives “thinkable” that might be unthinkable for others. For example, the Final Solution was part of Nazi grand strategy, and while for us The Holocaust is a paradigm of the unthinkable, in the context of Nazi ideology it was not only thinkable but practicable, and so the Nazis bequeathed to history genocide’s proof of concept.

Today I want to address a different aspect of the above implied (though not explicit) definition of grand strategy. Specifically, I want to discuss the strategic role of finite resources, which is central to the above quote. Previously I focused on choices, because I wanted to show that our strategic choices (both positive and negative) are conditioned by our strategic vision, and, even more broadly, by the conception of history that furnishes our Weltanschauung (what Foucault called an epistêmê and Kuhn called a paradigm). Although strategic choices are central, no less central is resource allocation. In the implicit definition above, we are forced to make choices because our resources are finite. This implies that, if only our resources were not finite, we might not have to make these choices. Thus resource allocation is more fundamental than the choices it seems to force upon us, because the finitude of resources is the reason for the choice, and not vice versa.

During the First World War, this conception of resource allocation — the limitations forced upon us by finitude — was central to the thinking of battlefield commanders. It was also ruinous. This was not only the First World War but was also the First Industrialized War. There were intimations of industrialized carnage earlier in the Russo-Japanese War, in which machine guns were extensively employed, but contemporary commanders learned little from the war, and so it had little strategic influence. I have also pointed out that the First World War was a war of Mass Man, and this was expressed strategically by the central role that mobilization played in all the great powers’ war plans prior to the war. (See Unintended Consequences of Enlightenment Universalism)

Trench warfare during the First World War.

During the First World War (and certainly not only during the First World War), commanders pervasively framed their plans to civilian leaders as being contingent upon more men and more shells. The central idea was if only a commander could get a sufficient number of men and HE shells, they would have sufficient mass (in the sense that “mass” is used in the principles of war, in contradistinction to economy of forces) for a breakthrough. (Falkenhayn even referred to this as a “mass breakthrough,” thus emphasizing the mass character of mass warfare — see the Falkenhayn quote below. NB: here we are not using “mass” in the sense of the principles of war.)

Fortifications at Verdun

Another expression of this line of thought was Verdun. The Battle of Verdun was conceived by Falkenhayn with the objective of “bleeding France white.” As Falkenhayn put it to Kaiser Wilhelm II:

“The string in France has reached breaking point. A mass break-through — which in any case is beyond our means — is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.”

That is to say, Falkenhayn knew that France’s manpower was limited, and that if it could be exhausted by being bled white, Germany could win. Falkenhayn was, in a sense, successful, perhaps too successful, because the same calculus of finitude that applied to France also applied to Germany, and The Battle of Verdun proved to be an equal opportunity slaughterhouse, consuming French and Germans alike, and almost at the same rate.

Some of the first intimations of maneuver warfare in its contemporary form emerged from straitened circumstances that forced commanders to work with limited resources. The well-known Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front was effective because Brusilov knew that his shells were limited, so instead of a barrage that lasted for days, there was a short, sharp barrage (kept short to minimize the use of shells) followed by an infantry advance. The advance was more successful than most infantry advances during the First World War because the element of surprise had been retained. Brusilov’s Order of Battle was also governed by similar considerations of finite resources. Once Brusilov’s successes got the attention of Moscow, Brusilov was given more men and more shells, and he returned to the same errors of other commanders during the war. No longer forced to be creative, and expecting a never-ending supply of men and shells, he planned as though resources were unlimited, and then he began to fail.

Aleksei Alekseevich Brusilov (Russian: Алексе́й Алексе́евич Бруси́лов) 19 August (Old Style 31 August) 1853 – 17 March 1926

To act as though one had unlimited resources at one’s command suggests certain approaches to warfighting, but a careful examination of the historical record shows that the assumptions upon which the unlimited approach is predicated are not always borne out in fact. There are many situations, both tactical and strategic, when unlimited resources would not change the outcome of an engagement. These are typically referred to as “choke points” or “bottlenecks.”

The most famous example of a choke point in military history is the Battle of Thermopylae, when a Greek force of about 7,000 held off a Persian army that may have had as many as a million men. The Greeks eventually lost the battle, which culminated in the last stand of King Leonidas with his three hundred Spartans (the subject of a recent film), but the ability of the Greeks to hold back a far larger force for a week was due to the pass of Thermopylae being a geographical choke point, where only a few men could fight shoulder-to-shoulder. Even if the Persians had had two or three million soldiers available, or an unlimited number of soldiers available, they would not have taken the pass any quicker than they did.

An armored spearhead from East Germany through the Fulda Gap into West Germany.

Another geographical choke point is the Fulda Gap in Germany, which was central to NATO planning during the Cold War. The Fulda Gap is one of the few places that the Warsaw Pact could have employed its superior number of tanks in an invasion of Western Europe. More recently, the Pankisi Gorge has been a focus of strategic thinking in the Caucasus, being a potential transshipment opportunity between Russia and the Middle East. As a pass within a mountainous region, it is the choke point of the Caucasus.

Perhaps more familiar than geographical choke points are naval choke points. Wikipedia gives a list of these as follows: Hormuz Strait between Oman and Iran at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Strait of Malacca between Singapore and Indonesia, Bab-el-Mandeb passage from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea, Panama Canal and the Panama Pipeline connecting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Suez Canal and the Sumed Pipeline connecting the Red Sea and Mediterranean Sea, The Turkish Straits/Bosporus linking the Black Sea (and oil coming from the Caspian Sea region) to the Mediterranean, The Strait of Gibraltar, Cape Horn, and The Cape of Good Hope. This list could easily be expanded. For example, the Battle of Tsushima during the Russo-Japanese War took place in the Tsushima Strait, which is a regional naval choke point.

No less significant than geographical or naval choke points are temporal or historical choke points. While the term “choke point” implies obstruction rather than facilitation, the temporal equivalent of a choke point we know as a “window of opportunity,” and this implies facilitation rather than obstruction. But facilitation and obstruction are two sides of the same coin, like the above mentioned distinction between choices facilitated (rendered thinkable) by a given strategic vision and choices obstructed (rendered unthinkable) by a given strategic vision. In both cases we have alternative formulations of the same state of affairs.

The Strait of Hormuz: both a military and economic choke point for 40 percent of the world's oil transported by tanker ships.

Spatial and temporal choke points usually work together. A battle has a certain duration; even a war has a certain duration, thought it may last a hundred years. The point here is that resources brought to bear after the crucial moment — that is to say, outside the window of opportunity — cannot be used. Thus a tactical delay, as at the Battle of Thermopylae, can be strategically decisive even if the delaying action is a lost battle. Against all odds, the Greeks ultimately kept the numerically superior Persian forces out of Greece, and they did so through a brilliant series of engagements that strategically deployed the far smaller Greek forces at choke points in what was, in some senses, a war of attrition that the Persians chose not to pursue because it was too costly.

I hope that it is not lost on the reader that this is precisely what the Viet Cong did in Viet Nam, and what the Mujaheddin did in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. Guerrilla wars have always (even if not explicitly) sought out the strategic choke points of numerically larger, technologically superior forces, and concentrated their action where that action could inflict proportionately heavy casualties, making the conflict a protracted and costly war of attrition. If a guerrilla force can maintain this attrition on a larger force long enough to break the political will of the civilian leaders directing the war, they can win even if guerrilla losses are disproportionately large. Sometimes this calculation is a close-run thing, and sometimes the guerrillas are extirpated before the fight becomes unsustainable and impossible for conventional forces, but there is always the possibility of oblique victory by way of the withdrawal of the conventional opponent.

As long as tactical and strategic thought is allowed to run in the lazy channels of if only we had more resources — be those resources soldiers, guns, money, time, etc. — the commanders thinking in such terms will be humiliated by more innovative strategic and tactical thinking that looks for the choke points where resources are far less significant than the will to fight. At a choke point, even a small, poorly equipped force can precipitate a decisive moment and turn the tide for their comrades in arms, though they may have to die at the choke point in order to achieve this end.

There are, of course, cases in which infinite resources would make a difference. However, this is not the only possibility, because there are cases — battles being a paradigm instances of such cases — when infinite resources would not make a difference (or do not necessarily make a difference). The true strategic thinker seeks these resource-neutralizing nodes and seizes upon them as the opportunity to project power at the least cost to himself and the greatest cost to his adversary. The failed strategic thinker chooses a point at which to concentrate his resources, believing that if he can pour enough resources into a strong point, he can ultimately win despite the losses he will take — like the French at Dien Bien Phu. As I noted above, this calculation can be a close run thing. The Western powers might have failed spectacularly with the Berlin Airlift (arguably an early battle of the Cold War), but they ultimately proved that they could pour sufficient resources into this engagement that it was the Russians who capitulated in this case.

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