The military history of the United States provides a good model for understanding the problems and conflicts in the organization and strategy of most institutions in America. We have a set of axioms and assumptions which we use in almost every system used to create any organization.
I broke this essay up yesterday. I wanted to follow yesterday’s essay on American medicine with discussion of military history. I believe that what we had done with American military strategy and order-of-battle, is what we are doing in medicine. This is a horrible tradition to have followed.
If there is a critical paradox in American military history, it is that intelligence, initiative, innovation and information win battles and win wars. Empirical evidence over the centuries shows that the traditional American skills of cleverness, innovation and reason defeat mediocre planning and unthinking obedience on the battlefield. Yet American doctrine has inevitably graduated to mediocre, dull and obedient generalship.
How Great Generals Win, by Bevin Alexander, is a great read for exploring this puzzle, not only as it presents in military history, but also civilian, government and corporate history, where leadership by the barely competent trumps brilliance.
Great generals win. The book offers examples of the generalship of many leaders from the Roman days to now, and their skills in sweeping battlefields and winning wars. However, the powerful hand of the general staff in many circumstances drives sterility, mediocrity and conformity – predictability, for sure – and one’s own predictability is lethal to one’s troops on the battlefield.
One type of military theory, which I consider the Prussian approach, fosters things squarely-built, dull and orderly, the Best Practices approach to strategy, operations and tactics. Everybody is guided by the hive mind, from generals to privates. This Prussian doctrine came to surprisingly dominate American military theory after the Civil War. Before the civil war, military theory was more flexible, and much more uniquely American. In opposition to the orderly concepts of the Form of Battle are the concepts of Clausewitz, who saw the battlefield much like the approaching storm; a confluence of possibilities, each with its own possible response. There is no way to direct a battle from the top, in the world of Clausewitz. Rather, one prepares for the engagement at the rank-and-file level, and lets the smaller units coordinate independently at the level of contact.
The Civil War showed the horror of throwing together the Clausewitz and Jomini theory of war, which are much more traditionally American in style, and the Prussian, overbearing, glacial style of waging war. The North picked up the Prussian style – see Henry Halleck’s tedious movement south after victory the battle of Shiloh, and one senses the lumbering of some giant, stupid dinosaur. This abundantly supplied Northern Army, following Prussian doctrine, slowly rolled over the responsive but very undersupplied Confederate Army following Clausewitz. The advantage of the more responsive doctrine was nullified. The larger opponent simply rolls forward unstoppably. It rolled over the citizenry, in the modern concept of Total War. The smoking hole – Sherman’s ripping up the heart of Georgia, Sheridan’s total war against the Shenandoah Valley. The Prussian style is horridly effective if the goal is destruction of the habitability of the land, rather than the defeat of the armies. They shuddered to a halt at Appomattox, each crucified on its own doctrine.
Since then, America appeared briefly in smaller wars with less opportunity to demonstrate doctrine; World War I, which showed the lethal pitting of two monoliths together in opposition at the trenches, over machine guns, Modern Warfare. Had the Europeans only studied the late Civil War, they would see how this type of war went about – and it was terrible. World War II is indescribable – it happened on so many fronts, using so many different tactics and approaches, that it cannot be summarized.
After all that, America came out with a stolidly Prussian playbook. We accidentally almost won the Korean War by the brilliant Inchon invasion. Then we slowly wound it back by playing Prussian strategy as we crept northward, hill by hill, killing our troops to gain locations that had no name on the map until given its name after another futile UN/US struggle.
After our Korean stalemate, we watched the French smash it into the wall at Dien Bien Phu, with the Viet Minh using tactics straight out of Mosby and Quantrill’s playbook. Mao’s Long March a few years before, and his victory against hundred-to-one odds, is not too impressive once one reads the history of the Confederate Raiders like Quantrill; Mao reinvented the wheel that was almost a century old.
And then Vietnam. And then Vietnam. Our plan – show up, be mighty! Our result – Leave and be humble.
History has shown, monotonously so, that centralized control in military and government, fails. Jefferson and the Founders were right. Why don’t we do them some honor by trying their ideas out instead of dull tyrannical mediocrity?