Consider this the Strategy version of the “gritty reboot.” I’ve always, like many people in strategic studies, unconsciously used the phrase “fear, honor, and interest.” It’s kind of a cliche for realists to quote Thucydides to describe the eternal forces that motivate human behavior and scold “idealists” (something that no one will admit to being to, just as everyone believes themselves to be a realist) for believing in utopia. While there’s a certain degree of truth to this, it also tends to be a bit rote. What does it actually mean?
Everyone is a bit familiar with Thucydides’ definition, rooted in an explanation of Athenian strategic behavior. They feared Persia, but they also cared about their own honor (pride and prestige) and national interests. What I like about this, if we take it a bit further, it is that is a kind of psychological “trinity” much like Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity. You’re being pulled in three directions–fear of your opponent and his intentions, irrational concern over your own prestige and position, and of course set national interests. You’re literally having to run to stand still.
Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity works the same way–the rage of the people, the chance and friction of the battlefield, and rational policy are all at odds with each other, and the result that emerges is war as we know it. Thucydides and Clausewitz’s respective trinities play into each other nicely. There’s also the Tony Montana trinity of money, power, and beautiful women–but that is more situation-dependent than Thucydides and Clausewitz.
Which brings me to the origin story of this blog. Alex Olesker was one of the first people I met when I moved to DC. While there are lots of strategic studies types in DC who like gangsta rap, Alex had perhaps the most extensive knowledge of rap I’d ever seen–and an ability to relate it to esoteric military theory.
And we both knew a lot of it. In the short time we’ve both been blogging and writing about the subject, we’ve gone through enough theoretical movements about strategy to provide the basis for a pretty damn good drinking game. Take a chug every time you read about “complex,” “full-spectrum,” etc. This isn’t a comment about the validity of any of these words and concepts, just proof of the fact that our awesomeness extends to party planning too–if you too rack up large tabs at your local Barnes and Noble military history section.
Observe this poor lolcat, pondering why his castle does not have moat “wif fishies.” Now this lolcat is in some ways representative of the problem of American strategic thinking, as our colleague Fouche famously noted:
Pity the American nerd. He suffers from a contradiction: he can see the narrow slices of reality that he specializes in exquisite and even excruciating detail. Unfortunately, he sees the world outside as a mixture of his tiny area of expertise writ large and a land populated by large bright shiny ideals that he can see in all of its fine shades. Based on this perception, he can formulate responses perfectly calibrated to exploit his unique domain knowledge to remake the world in the image of his vision. However, the nerd’s intentions suffer from a major defect: they are usually fatally out of sync with the means available to achieve that vision.
For every expansive plan rooted in an perfect vision of geopolitics–you have the messy reality of the fact that resources and public attitudes essentially point towards the status quo: the geopolitical equivalent of the cat and the moat. You want a civilian surge and instead get a surge of civilians towards the mall looking to get that new slurpee.
And that’s part of why we’ve stacked this blog the way we have (and may add more as things go on)–even if we each may see the world through our own rather narrow slice of reality and specialty, we collectively add up to a better picture.
I went out one night in Dupont Circle and saw a man furiously draining an ATM, proclaiming the whole time that he was about to “make it rain.” Unfortunately, he was too drunk to remember his own PIN, so he kept typing the wrong number over and over again, cursing louder and louder each time.
No, that’s not another allegory for some error of strategy. It’s just an amusing diversion that I remembered while looking on Facebook and writing this entry. The point that I really want to make is that another problem–related to the Fouche entry–is that strategic studies is getting stuck in respective boxes. COIN, anti-COIN, conventional, irregular, etc. Another motivation for starting this blog is that we want to encourage minds as fundamentally eccentric as ours. That’s what part of what the field needs–some (qualified) eccentricity. If J.F.C Fuller can have Aleister Crowley with his tanks, we can get some giant robots with our footnoted papers on cyberwar and revolutions in military affairs.
At the end of the day, American strategy often comes down largely to the influence of personality. Abraham Lincoln was the strategic equivalent of Wolverine–able to internalize all levels of tactics, operations, strategy, and policy into his own mind. He didn’t entirely get it right. But he got enough right to win. If he had claws and regenerative healing, history might have looked a lot different.
And that returns us to fear, honor, and interest. “Great man” theories of history get a bum rap, because not everything really is statistical trends that build up over time. It comes down to the “man on the scene with a gun” and the mind of the policymaker who sent him there. And that’s why, despite the fact that it may not be fashionable anymore, we’ll continue to focus on the intangibles that make up the vortex of fear, honor, and interest that ultimately will shape our destinies.
So consider this a “gritty reboot”–but also an experiment.