The First World War transformed Scotland's relationship with military service, reversing the trends of the previous hundred years and reconnecting with those of the eighteenth century and earlier. The emergency of 1914–18, while traumatic, was transitory, but it also left a national legacy. Scottish society, learned and industrious, thrifty and devout – at least in the stereotypes – re-acquired a patina of militarism which it has subsequently proved reluctant wholly to shed. Here, Scotland compares less with its southern neighbour, England, which by the early twenty-first century has become remarkably distant from its military legacy, and more with the Dominions of the pre-1914 British Empire. The constitutions of Australia, New Zealand and Canada all pre-date the First World War, but the first two nations have increasingly linked their identities with the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, as Canada has done with the more successful, but also more bloody, battle of Vimy in 1917. The ‘white’ Dominions entered the war as self-conscious members of the British Empire, but emerged with an enhanced sense of their own distinctiveness. Today Australia in particular, by invoking the ‘Anzac spirit’, venerates its accomplishments in war, despite its commitment to democracy, international order and other liberal values. Its capital, Canberra, is dominated by war memorials, and by the Australian War Memorial in particular, as it looks across to parliament. Scotland confronts comparable paradoxes. It is sceptical of war's utility and yet vests a surprisingly large element of its national identity in martial trappings.
During the eighteenth century, the leading figures of the Scottish enlightenment rejected Scotland's reputation as an exporter of soldiers, arguing that fit, able-bodied men should devote their energies to more productive pastimes. During the Seven Years War (1756–63) Scotland stood aloof from the English debate on compulsory service in the militia for this reason, and thereafter its leading economic theorist, Adam Smith, used his argument for the division of labour to favour a professional army rather than universal military service. Recruiting in the Highlands plummeted, as much because of the rural depopulation following the Clearances – another symptom of the drive for economic growth – as because of a high-minded aversion to the profession of arms.
On 7 January 1917 the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, had a brief meeting with the new French commander-in-chief, Robert Nivelle. He was told of a plan to break through on the Western Front and achieve victory in forty-eight hours. John Buchan described the meeting at the Gare du Nord as decisive:
Mr Lloyd George heard of Nivelle's plan – limitless objectives, the end of trench fighting, victory within two days – and naturally fell in love with it.
Lloyd George had backed the wrong horse. The Nivelle offensive failed, and that summer half of the French army would be wracked by mutiny.
In 1933, Lloyd George had his revenge on Buchan's version of events:
When a brilliant novelist assumes the unaccustomed rôle of a historian it is inevitable that he should now and again forget that he is no longer writing fiction, but that he is engaged on a literary enterprise whose narration is limited in its scope by the rigid bounds of fact … Three fundamental inaccuracies in a single sentence are not a bad achievement even for a writer who has won fame by inventing his facts. The real explanation is that Mr Buchan found it so much less trouble to repeat War Office gossip than to read War Office documents.
Lloyd George's accusations have, as was often the case, a mote and beam quality about them. His own account of the battle of Passchendaele was described by the official historian of the war as ‘entirely fictitious’. However, his response to Buchan's account of the Nivelle affair raises three important issues. Two – the relationship between Lloyd George and John Buchan, and the former's presumption that the latter had access to War Office documents – will be returned to later. The third is more immediate: the idea that John Buchan was a novelist posing as a historian.
Since the industrialisation of Europe in the late nineteenth century, European armies have been able to trade firepower for manpower. The mass production of repeating weapons has made the battlefield more lethal, but it has also required fewer men proportionately to do the killing. As weapons have improved in quality, so they have reinforced the case against manpower in quantity. Technology was (and still can be) a force-multiplier.
This process did not initially result in smaller armies. Rather European states opted for both firepower and manpower: mass production enabled a large army to be equipped and supplied to a level and consistency that had defied the ambitions of less developed states. In August 1914 France mobilised eighty-two divisions and Germany eighty-seven, and each had almost three million men under arms. By late 1918 each of the three major allied armies on the western front (those of France, Britain and the United States, but not Belgium, which was cut off from its manpower pool) numbered in the region of two million men. These were conscript forces and represented the greatest numbers that their parent societies could bear. Although French and British divisions were smaller in manpower terms, and had fewer battalions than in 1914, they had increased their firepower ratio by the adoption of tanks, light machine guns, mortars and highly sophisticated artillery.
Strategy is oriented towards the future. It is a declaration of intent, and an indication of the possible means required to fulfil that intent. But once strategy moves beyond the near term, it struggles to define what exactly it intends to do. Part of the problem is generated by the conceptual shift from what current NATO jargon calls ‘military strategy’ to what Americans increasingly call ‘grand strategy’ (and which other states, as the USA once did, have come to call ‘national strategy’). The operational plans of military strategy look to the near term, and work with specific situations. Grand strategy, on the other hand, can entertain ambitions and goals which are more visionary and aspirational than pragmatic and immediate. It is as much a way of thinking as a way of doing. By using the same word, strategy, in both sets of circumstances, we create an expectation, each of the other, which neither can properly fulfil. The shift from ‘military strategy’ to ‘grand strategy’ is particularly fraught: it suggests that the latter, like the former, is underpinned by an actionable plan. If strategy is a matter of combining means, ways and ends, what are the ends towards which a state, nation or group is aiming when it cannot be precise about the future context within which its means and ways are being applied? Answering that question is the central conundrum of grand strategy, and being able to do so sensibly is correspondingly more difficult the more extended the definition of the future which grand strategy uses.
Many world events, however much they are dwelt on by the media, have no direct effects on us as individuals. Watching television, we see the lives of others thrown into chaos, while our own continue their even tenor. However, very occasionally something occurs which is both shocking in its own right and also personally destabilising. Of such (very rare) occasions, we recall where we were, what we were doing and how we heard the news. Those who were alive when the First World War broke out nearly always recalled the event not just in terms of its global significance but also in its personal context. City-dwellers were on the streets, in a café or buying the latest edition of a newspaper; peasants working in the fields were surprised when they heard the church bell ringing for no obvious reason.
In our own era, the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 provoke similar conflations of the massive with the microscopic: they too were one of those defining moments in world history which we understand not just in international terms but also in personal. Each of us tends to recall the circumstances in which we first saw the television images of the jets crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Unlike the beginning of the First World War, the events in New York – and to a lesser extent in Washington – had an immediate global audience. They were communicated with images in real time, not in words after a lapse of time. They reached an audience so stunned that at first it suspended belief, unsure whether it was watching fact or fiction. Those who were stopped in the street by the screens in television shop windows or who were alerted by their friends to turn on their radios were more than observers; they also became participants. It was precisely the attacks’ capacity to acquire a global audience within minutes of their initiation that gave them their strategic effect. Each of us who recalls the circumstances in which we first heard and saw the news is to some extent an involuntary partner in terrorism.
On 23 June 2010, President Barack Obama recalled General Stanley McChrystal to Washington, and relieved him of his command in Afghanistan. In the view of most commentators, the president had little choice. As quoted by Michael Hastings in an article in Rolling Stone, McChrystal and his immediate circle of military advisers had criticised and disparaged the United States’s ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, the president’s special representative for the region, Richard Holbrooke, and the vice-president, Joe Biden. Their scorn had gone further: it had embraced the president himself. Had Obama failed to act, the norms of civil–military relations would have been overthrown. As the president put it, the article had undermined ‘the civilian control of the military that’s at the core of our democratic system’.
But McChrystal had not set out to challenge that norm. This was a cock-up, not a conspiracy. His dignified response, and his refusal to try to justify or explain away the remarks attributed to him, confirmed his disciplined acceptance of his own constitutional position. What he had done was something rather different: he and his colleagues had vented their frustration at the lack of clear political guidance within which McChrystal’s own operational concepts were meant to sit. The operational level of war is the level of command situated between the tactical and the strategic, between the company or battalion commander in the field and the president in the White House. It is in the exercise of operational art that today’s senior generals, like McChrystal, hope to reach the acme of their professional careers. The bulk of the planning done by their staffs is devoted both to preparing for that opportunity and then to applying their skills in order to manage the characteristic chaos of war. But to do that operational art needs direction; it requires of policy a degree of clarity and a consistency of purpose which can frequently be at odds with the realities and contingencies of politics. In 1952, when General Douglas MacArthur was recalled by President Harry Truman, his sin was to have called for a change in strategy; by contrast McChrystal just wanted a strategy.
Few of the great thinkers on strategy who wrote before 1918 did so in English, and few of those who have done so since 1945 have been British as opposed to American. From Sun Tzu to Jomini, from Machiavelli to Clausewitz, most of the true originals in strategic thought have not hailed from the United Kingdom. But in one respect at least Britain can claim to have made an original contribution to strategic thought. Those who support the concept of strategic culture, the focus of much attention in contemporary strategic studies, have developed an ancestry for it which traces its roots to the British isles.
Not that the connection is immediately obvious. In 1977 an American, Jack Snyder, wrote a report on Russian strategic culture for RAND. Snyder defined strategic culture as ‘a set of general beliefs, attitudes and behavior patterns with regard to nuclear strategy [that] has achieved a state of semipermanence that places them on the level of “culture” rather than mere “policy”’. Snyder’s piece was seminal: he asked strategic theorists to look at Soviet attitudes to war in the light not just of communism but also of Russia’s geopolitical position and its Tsarist legacy. In a sense it turned the study of strategy away from its Cold War grooves, shaped by game theory and political science, and back to its more traditional disciplinary roots, geography and history. It was a point well made. Strategic culture has taken root in some university politics departments, and, although Snyder himself has since moderated his position, others – notably Colin Gray – have adopted it with increasing vehemence.
On 19 November 2003, President George W. Bush delivered a major speech on international relations at the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall, London. Security was intense: many Britons were unhappy that the privileges of a state visit were being accorded an American president who had gone to war in Iraq when the justification for doing so in international law was at best unclear. The event was therefore controversial; however, the speech was less so. Indeed, most British commentators welcomed it as a clear statement of United States foreign policy, and probably George Bush’s most coherent comments on the subject to date. ‘We will help the Iraqi people establish a peaceful and democratic country in the heart of the Middle East. And by doing so, we will defend our people from danger,’ he declared. He then went on: ‘The forward strategy of freedom must also apply to the Arab–Israeli conflict.’
This last sentence is puzzling. Strategy is a military means; freedom in this context is a political or even moral condition. Strategy can be used to achieve freedom, but can freedom be a strategy in itself? A fortnight after Bush’s speech, on 2 December 2003, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office published its first White Paper on foreign policy since the Callaghan government of 1976–9. Its focus was on terrorism and security; it was concerned with illegal immigration, drugs, crime, disease, poverty and the environment; and it included – according to the Foreign Office’s website – ‘the UK’s strategy for policy, public service delivery and organisational priorities’. The punctuation created ambiguity (were public service delivery and organisational priorities subjects of the paper or objects of the strategy?), but the central phrase was the first one. It suggested that the Foreign Office now developed strategy to set policy, rather than policy to set strategy.
Over the past decade the armed forces of the western world, and particularly those of the United States and the United Kingdom, have been involved in waging a war for major objectives – or so at least the rhetoric of that war’s principal advocates, George Bush and Tony Blair, had us believe. It is a war to establish the values of the free world – democracy, religious toleration and liberalism – across the rest of the globe. In his speech on 11 September 2006, delivered to mark the fifth anniversary of the attacks in 2001, President Bush, showing a prescience denied to the rest of us, declared that it is ‘the decisive ideological struggle of the twenty-first century. It is a struggle for civilisation.’ This war may have its principal focus in the Middle East and Central Asia, but it is also being waged within Europe, with the supporting evidence provided by the bomb attacks in Madrid on 11 March 2004 and in London on 7 July 2005.
Bush and Blair called this war ‘the global war on terror’. In February 2006 US Central Command, based at Tampa in Florida but with responsibilities which span the Middle East and south-west Asia, recognised the conceptual difficulties posed by the ‘global war on terror’ and rebranded it the ‘long war’. Both titles treated the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as subordinate elements of the grand design. Moreover, the design was so grand that it was one on to which other conflicts could be grafted, even when the United States was not a direct participant. The prime minister of Australia, John Howard, used his country’s peace-keeping commitments in East Timor in 1999, and his wider concerns about Indonesia more generally, not least after the Bali bomb attack of 12 October 2002, to sign up to the war on terror (with some reason). In 2006, Israel presented its actions against the Hizbollah in Lebanon as part of the same greater struggle (with rather less).
In 1975 Colin Powell entered the National War College in Washington. Once there, Colonel Powell (as he was then), a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, read Carl von Clausewitz’s On war for the first time. He was bowled over. On war was, Powell recalled, ‘like a beam of light from the past, still illuminating present-day military quandaries’. What particularly impressed him was Clausewitz’s view that the military itself formed only ‘one leg in a triad’, the other two elements of which were the government and the people. All three had to be engaged for war to be sustainable; in the Vietnam War America’s had not been.
Powell may have been right about the Vietnam War, but not about Clausewitz. Powell had misread the final section of the opening chapter of On war, that which describes war as ‘a strange trinity’. Its three elements are not the people, the army and the government, but passion, chance and reason. Clausewitz went on to associate each of these three elements more particularly with the feelings of the people, the exercise of military command and the political direction of the government. But in doing so he moved from the ‘trinity’ itself to its application. The people, the army and the government are elements of the state, not of war. The distinction is crucial not only to the relevance of On war today but also to what follows in this book. Clausewitz informs much of its content; he does so because he emphatically sought to understand war in terms as broad as possible, and to be as little bounded by the circumstances of his own time as his not inconsiderable intellectual powers enabled.
The most damning criticism of the American conduct of the war in Iraq was that it lacked a strategy. ‘All too often’, Colin Gray wrote in 2005, ‘there is a black hole where American strategy ought to reside.’ Of course there were other failings, but this was the most significant because from it many of the others flowed. Strategy implies that the government has a policy and that the strategy flows from the policy: it is an attempt to make concrete a set of objectives through the application of military force to a particular case. But the ‘war on terror’, embraced in September 2001, was profoundly astrategic. Directed not towards a political goal, but against a means of fighting, it set an agenda that lacked geographical precision. Its successor and reconfiguration, ‘the long war’, enunciated in February 2006, recognised the problem but did not solve it. ‘The long war’ is about shaping military means to political objectives, but conceptually it remains devoid of strategic insight and of political context. Strategy needs to recognise war’s nature; this one uses a policy statement as a substitute for defining the war. The concept of length only acquires meaning when contrasted with brevity, as both long war and short war are relative terms. Moreover, the ‘long war’ deliberately minimised the wars that were then being waged, in Iraq and Afghanistan, by placing them in the context of something bigger but altogether more amorphous. Wars require enemies and it is not clear exactly who in this case they were.
For the historian strategic studies today present an interesting paradox. Thirty years ago strategic studies was a hybrid, a disciplinary mix of history, politics, law, some economics and even a little mathematics. Today the subject has been increasingly appropriated by departments of political science, its identity often subsumed under the amorphous title of ‘security studies’. As a result the study of strategy has been largely divorced from the historical roots in which it first flourished. This is not to say that history has no value for political scientists. They use case studies all the time, but they tend to choose those topics which prove or disprove a thesis, not subjects which are to be studied in their own historical contexts. Stories told without context obliterate the woof and warp of history, the sense of what is really new and changing as opposed to what is not.
This is not a historian’s diatribe against a discipline other than his own. Historians can be just as guilty of tunnel vision, too readily feeding the caricatures of themselves painted by political scientists. They are the party poopers who respond to claims that all is new and different by saying the reverse (and the perverse), claiming precedents which stress continuity, not change. So, for example, if the character of war is changing in the twenty-first century, those changes can be associated with non-state actors and private military companies, both of which are familiar to early modern historians, or with terrorists and insurgents, also equally well known to historians, in this case of Napoleonic Europe or of nineteenth-century imperialism. If this difference in disciplinary approach were uniformly true, what follows should stress continuity, saying that not much that is really new is likely to appear in the twenty-first century (and in some respects it will do that). Following the same logic, if the chapter had been written by a political scientist, it would have predicted dramatic changes, presenting major threats in that recurrent cliché, ‘an increasingly globalised world’.
Cool and steadfast under fire. Sound tactical ability. In operations in Greece & Crete showed ability to meet unexpected situations. In command of the 10th Brigade in Crete he showed confidence, aggressiveness, power of command and an undefeatable spirit. His deep distaste of showmanship has given him a somewhat retiring manner, which tends to obscure his great ability. Has a deep knowledge of military history.
This is the report on New Zealander Howard Kippenberger after the battle of Crete, the action in which ‘Kip’ earned the first of his two DSOs. Written by Edward Puttick on 25 July 1941, it recommended Kippenberger for promotion to brigadier, the rank in which his reputation was made and from which he took the title of one of the classic memoirs of the Second World War, Infantry brigadier. Two qualities in particular attributed to ‘Kip’ in the report are important for what follows – the ability to meet the unexpected and a deep knowledge of military history.
The standard wisdom is that the latter is the enemy of the former. The British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart used to say – in his characteristically snide manner – that generals spend too much time thinking about what happened in the last war and not enough thinking about the one they are actually fighting. In reality Liddell Hart, who became a bête noire for Kippenberger when he was the editor in chief of New Zealand’s official history of the Second World War, used military history just as extensively as Kippenberger did. In criticising the abuse of military history, we can too easily dismiss its use – indeed its essential and vital utility. Without the context which it provides, students of war are like ships at sea without charts and for which the stars are obscured by cloud (at least in a pre-GPS era). We have no reference points by which to judge what is new or to frame the questions to be asked of what seems to be new; as a result we are disproportionately disconcerted and even frightened by its unfamiliarity. Nor, without it, can we understand how and why Kippenberger, a provincial lawyer, gained his reputation not in the courts of Christchurch but on battlefields more than half a world away from the direct defence of New Zealand.
Maritime strategy faces problems of definition even more acute than those currently confronting what some theorists call ‘military strategy’. The latter is a tautology constructed to reflect the growth of grand strategy or national strategy, and is therefore some compensation for the sloppy, if currently fashionable, tendency to use the word strategy as a general synonym for policy. For traditionalists, all strategy is military. So what do modernists mean by ‘military strategy’? How, for example, does it differ from the operational level of war? Is ‘military’ used in the narrow British sense, and therefore to refer only to armies? Or is its use more transatlantic, with the implication that ‘military’ encompasses all the armed services, including the navy? If the latter is the norm, is the expression ‘naval strategy’ redundant? To British ears, naval strategy implies that it is something that the Royal Navy does, and therefore carries the ultimate sanction of armed force. Maritime strategy by contrast is broader, potentially embracing all the nation’s uses of the sea, economic as well as defensive. These questions are not hair-splitting. Words convey concepts: if they are not defined, the thinking about them cannot be clear, and there is also the danger that one person’s military strategy is another’s policy, just as one person’s naval strategy is another’s maritime strategy. Such ambiguity creates confusion within individual nations, let alone alliances ostensibly speaking a common language.
Strategy traditionally defined at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was what generals, not admirals, did. They applied strategy by employing their armies in particular theatres of war. Following a course set by the Enlightenment, by Joly de Maizeroy and the comte de Guibert, Jomini and Clausewitz sought, in the first place, to link tactics to strategy, and to provide a theoretical framework within which the practice of land warfare could be understood. To that extent the evolution of military thought is a story that starts at the bottom, with the practical and tactical guidance of the ancients, from Xenophon to Vegetius, and works its way up. Clausewitz defined strategy as the use of the battle for the purposes of the war: in other words, he aimed to link tactics to a wider objective and ultimately, of course, to link strategy to policy.
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