Quoth John Maynard Keynes:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
When meeting new people, HAL’s Legacy claims, most of us are ten or so canned personal anecdotes away from conversational oblivion. After the culminating point of conversation is reached, meet and greets inevitably wither into awkward silence and social oblivion.
In statecraft, the average aspiring statesman is ten or so strategic clichés away from strategic oblivion.
American examples of such strategic clichés include:
- Munich heuristic or “appeasement never works“
- Reagan heuristic or “don’t negotiate with terrorists“
- banal COIN heuristic or “there’s no military solution, only a political solution“
- touchy-feely COIN heuristic or “win the hearts and minds of the people“
- Buonaparte-Hitler heuristic or “don’t get involved in a land war in Asia“
- Vietnam heuristic or “you can’t change a society through armed intervention“
- We Occupied Germany and Japan heuristic or “you can change a society through armed intervention“
- Versailles heuristic or “vengeance through treaty makes Germans genocidal“
The purpose of strategic theory is to strive with all of its might to make sure that the strategic clichés that practical men of state become enslaved to are the most workable clichés possible.
The power to become habituated to his surroundings is a marked characteristic of mankind.
This is the essence of the orientation phase of Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop: transferring the impetus to act from slow, pedantic, and conscious decision to rapid, effervescent, and unconscious habit.
Habits moving upstream from decision to orientation may be right. They may be wrong. They may be only sort of right. They may be only sort of wrong. However, given the confusing shower of input pouring into the brain at any given moment, the choice is not one between decision or orientation or one between conscious deliberation or unconscious habit. The choice is between being able to act at all, even if just muddling through, or being curled up in the fetal position of chronic analytical paralysis sucking your thumb.
You cannot reach Newtonian-level precision in strategy. You cannot escape systemic imprecision in strategy. But it’s not a big deal. Even in areas amenable to the full Newton, you can get by well enough without knowing about inverse square laws or
fluxions calculus. Small children, lacking such knowledge, generally avoid slipping the bonds of gravity and floating off into outer space. Gravity grades on a curve, small children come with remarkable shock absorbers, and hard knocks instill at least rudimentary understanding of universal gravitation as babyhood passes into childhood.
Even Newton got by without being Newtonian in being Newtonian.
Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind that looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.
Jomini’s ride on the last fumes of the fading Newtonian zeitgeist of the Enlightenment may seem to be fanatically Newtonian. However, his magical invocations of magical lines of operation on a map was even more primeval than Newton: it was downright Euclidian.
The material that Clausewitz drew from the Newtonian well that produced friction, centers of gravity, and force was more complex (or more convoluted) than Jomini’s Learn to Make War in 30 Days approach. His seemingly Newtonian constructs were more metaphoric and more suggestive than definitive. Clausewitz did not come down from the mountain top carrying ten definitive strategic clichés carved in stone.
He never came down from the mountain at all.
A Prussian search party ascended the mountain and found no trace of Clausewitz. All they found incomplete scratchings on half quarried stone tablets. The Prussians scratched their pointy heads, shrugged their iron shoulders, and brought these strange inscriptions down from the mountaintop. They presented them with little enthusiasm to the people. The people selectively incorporated some of less obscure carvings on Clausewitz’s tablets into their strategic liturgy with even less enthusiasm and continued to worship Jomini’s golden calf.
As the sausage machine of politics turns out unsightly and messy strategy, the end product will never match anyone’s Platonic ideal of strategy. But theoretical and abstract purity, grasping for perfection, is neither desirable or possible with strategic theory. Strategic theory must concentrate on producing a consistent description of strategic phenomena passable enough to cause no lasting harm as it trickles down from academic scribbler to supposed practical statesman. The 10 or so strategic clichés that reach the fingertips of the practical man of state, even in their most bowdlerized retellings, may eventually be revealed as the decisive margin of error between national success and natural oblivion.
For strategic theorists themselves, strategic theory must be uniform and clear enough that, as we all feel up a liver to divine the future of human action, we can all agree on which lump of viscera amidst the meat cuttings is which. The act of divining the future in strategy’s lines of flesh can then be left to the theorist as an exercise.