Saturday, August 2, 2008

Will There Be War?

When I was a teenager, Arthur Clarke and Robert Heinlein were the two principle influences on my questionable intellectual growth. As a young man of 30ish, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle ran a close race with Dean Ing for the same position in my personal literary pantheon. All of them were also enormously entertaining while doing so, I might add.

About the time I began considering which branch of military service most attracted me, Dr. Pournelle, along with two other PhD's (Stefan Possony and Francis Kane) wrote The Strategy of Technology. Fellow fans of his fiction probably haven't read this one as Jerry Pournelle has subsequently explained:

A generation of students used this book, but a new generation can’t find it; the copies still in use in the War College are Xeroxes, the book long being out of print. Meanwhile, new threats loom on the horizon. The Seventy Years War is over; the Technological War continues relentlessly. It is possible that this book is needed now more than ever.

Dr. Pournelle further notes:

Most of the examples in this book were chosen for their impact on thoughts about the Cold War and the threat of Soviet communism. They are now historical rather than current, and a proper revision of this book would use examples from current threats; alas we haven’t time to do that; nor have we time to do a proper chapter on space and space weapons.

What follows is my effort to contribute to whatever lesson a revised copy of The Strategy of Technology might someday offer.

I think it must be a truism that what you stipulate when formulating a postulate influences the outcome of any thesis. More simply put, what you assume going into a discussion determines the conclusion you arrive at. In The Strategy of Technology, the author's (hereinafter addressed to Dr. Pournelle personally) offer the following definition of strategy:

According to the traditional concept of military strategy it should mean the art of employing military forces to achieve the ends set by political policy. This definition was formulated by [Sir Basil Henry] Liddell Hart in 1929 and it hardly differs from that of Clausewitz. Raymond Aron follows it almost word for word. France's leading strategist of the 60's commented:

"In my view this definition is too restrictive because it deals with military forces only. I would put it as follows: the art of applying force so that it makes the most effective contribution towards achieving the ends set by political policy...

"In my view the essence of strategy is the abstract interplay which, to use Foch's phrase, springs from the clash between two opposing wills. It is the art which enables a man, no matter what the techniques employed, to master the problems set by any clash between two opposing wills. It is the art which enables a man, no matter what the techniques employed, to master the problems set by any clash of wills and as a result to employ the techniques available with maximum efficiency. it is therefore the art of the dialectic of force, or, more precisely, the art of the dialectic of two opposing wills using force to resolve their dispute.

In our judgment it would be hard to better the above definition provided that we understand force to include the broader concept of power and force. Examining the definition shows us several important aspects of the Technological War and its strategy.

To quote from the quote "In my view this is too restrictive", not to mention being thoroughly misleading. In reality, strategy is not limited by purely military and/or political considerations. Nor should it be premised upon the tactical considerations or technological achievements of the day.

In essence, strategy is simply the concept of positional advancement.

In strategic terms, all humans each occupy a unique position. Strategy then becomes the effort to advance one's position relative to all other positions (to include the one's position relative to itself). This can be accomplished via various means and devices, but the fundamental premise remains constant, whatever the strategic environment or climate (which only incidentally includes actual weather) might prove to be. Limiting the framework of discussion to a military/political application limits the tactics and opportunities available to achieve advancement. It also promotes continued misunderstanding of strategic principles and their practical application in resolving the dilemma's we all face as part of daily life. The outcome of which results in increased strife for all of us to have to contend with while seeking to advance our own position.

In the specific example, Dr. Pournelle describes technology as being the mechanism whereby outright war is avoided:

This is the unique feature of the Technological War. Military superiority or even supremacy is not permanent, and never ends the conflict unless it is used. The United States considers the Technological War as an infinite game: one which is not played out to a decisive victory. We are committed to a grand strategy of defense, and will never employ a decisive advantage to end the conflict by destroying our enemies. Consequently, we must maintain not only military superiority but technological supremacy. *The race is an alternative to destructive war, not the cause of military conflict.*

If your intent is to promote militarily oriented industry, this is an excellent argument to take up. As effective strategy, not so much. Essentially, this is the Clausewitzian fallacy writ large; that the side with the biggest/best used cannon wins (to include the logistics capability to do so, of course). From a traditional Western/European military perspective, the good Count makes a defensible argument. As a strategy he's much too limited in his consideration of the efforts that influence - that shape, in current parlance - the battle long before the field is taken by anyone. With or without cannon.

The Cold War outcome Jerry Pournelle and his fellow authors urge in this text isn't in dispute. The contribution of US technology to achieving that outcome is less clear however. The ultimate failure of the Soviet Communist system has at least as much to do with it's inherent instabilities as does all but the most extreme actions of others. The tactic of technology to drive the Soviet economy into failure isn't a strategy, any more than the quality and quantity of hammers available is a carpenter. Tactics are the mechanism used to achieve a strategic advancement and thus often become emblematic of strategy. Confusing the emblem for the substance is a mistake I believe the authors have permitted themselves in the present example.

The answer to the titular question is: Of course! As Jerry Pournelle himself has pointed out elsewhere in his writings, there are very few "master chess player" strategists about here in the real world. People misjudge or simply don't understand how to achieve what they strive for and thus conflict with other's wrapped up in their own efforts is inevitable. As Sun Tzu said, "The epitome of Generalship is to achieve victory without fighting", and there is very little room at the top of any heap. It should also be noted that the "best general" doesn't always win. Robert E. Lee, Hans Guderian ..., the list is a long one of superior generals who nonetheless fought on the losing side.

In closing, I wish to point out the strategic context, as I understand that to be, of this quote from Chapter 1 of The Strategy of Technology:

THERE ARE at least two kinds of games. One should be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the game.

James P. Carse Finite and Infinite Games

Strategy, the universal striving for individual positional advancement is an infinite game, played by any number for all time. Tactics are the expression of the finite games we all play, serially or as a group, to realise those desired advancements. Technology has a pivotal role in most strategic endeavors, especially as technology becomes more endemic to daily life. However, unless your life can be summed up on a bumper sticker, your strategy is more than the total of your tools.

One final comment if I may. I find it slightly disingenuous of Dr. Pournelle to fault the students of his own treatise because he thinks their actually using what he taught in Mesopotamia, rather than the plains surrounding Kursk, to be somehow misplaced or misguided. By reputation at least, strategy is largely an exercise in manipulation and misdirection. Every once in a while though, you have to actually reach into your bag of technology and hammer the crap out of somebody just to drive home the lesson that you actually do have such things and will use them when and as you think necessary.

It can't all be bluff; sometimes you've got to show the guy you're not even playing against yet that you actually do have the cards.

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