Unhappy Medium: The Perils of Annoyance as Your Strategic Default

Last week saw its share of sound and fury. One again, commentators from around the globe, ranging from noted Clausewitzian to unnoted COINdinista, gathered to answer, once and for all, one question: does America conquer through love or through death? (hint: the answer is yes). However, last week saw something more important: substantive and troubling hints of the reemergence of a real threat, a specter that has haunted American defense thinking since 1844: unapologetic magic bulletry

Quoth the Committee:

Iraq 2003 was the last hurrah of the dotcom era. Echoing a classic “netizen” conceit, Pentagon planners believed that American forces would interpret the Iraqi army as damage and route around them to victory. Intensive “network-centric” warfare would combine data from each network node (soldier) into a grand central clearinghouse that would deliver total information omniscience. Commanders could then move forces to needs, on demand. Any enemy infantryman that sneezed in the night would draw instant, exactly targeted fire that would hermetically package and deliver them to Allah with the best IT driven efficiency that the private sector could provide. Light shows of dizzying precision would capture enemy eyeballs, break their will to resist, and leave Mesopotamia the newest target demographic for Madison Avenue.

This thought was the logical endpoint of dotcom mania. Governmental institutions, the military being one such institution, lag behind the private sector in tech mania adoption. Dotcom groupthink hit the military hardest after it had passed its peak of hysteria in the rest of American society.

In its nineties heyday, techno-opiates promised a future where U.S. forces moved freely like network packets across an antiseptic information battlespace. These force “packets” would be effectively omniscient since enemy forces would continue to unheedingly mass Soviet style forces in large formations across flat, treeless, and unpopulated terrain. There the enemy could be anesthetized in detail with precision, with laser-guided fluffy down pillows lulling enemy soldiers gently to sleep. The American military would simply interpret resistance “as damage and route around it“. The result of such thinking was an American military that could deter a large country, destroy a medium-sized country, or occupy a small country.

This policy shift from the mass armies of mid-century America to its smaller and more élite just-in-time replacement assumed a strong ability to accurately see the future. This is understandable: part of any defense plan is building the force you want that lets you do what you want to create the future you want. Unfortunately, the most neglected yet important part of a defense plan is building the force you need to survive what you don’t want to do in a future you don’t want. Building a magic bullet force assumes you’ll always enjoy the luxury of fighting whoever, whatever, wherever, whenever, and however you want, protected by an all-seeing eye so powerful and so pervasive that it provides perfect predictive power. The power of prophecy will free you from the margin of safety supplied by the quantitative outputs of the 20th century with just-in-time margins supplied by the qualitative outputs of the 21st.

If the last decade should have taught Americans anything, it should have taught them that contemporary American can’t predict the future. However, the correct solution (stop treating false prophecy as gospel) has been widely ignored in favor of the wrong solution (bet everything on false prophecy, only this time more aggressively). Just yesterday, we once again saw U.S. financial markets tumble because a significant number of investors had gambled, wrongly, on predictions of higher unemployment being in its last throes. Billions are lost and made based on the illusion that Benjamin S. Bernanke of Washington, D.C. is any better at predicting U.S. economic indicators than John X. Smith of Duluth, Iowa.

In the wars of the 21st century, thousands died and trillions were spent based merely on the authority of prophecy that was little more predictive than the steely glint of Donald Rumsfeld’s bespectacled eyes and the firmness of his jaw. The result was a force that manfully struggled its way to relative operational success despite the obstacles the Pentagon put in its way. The military danced dreadfully close to the edge but escaped operationally unscathed. Strategically, however, the military’s combat forces are depleted by repeat overseas visits, its hospitals are packed with lifelong, and its weaponry has a decade of wear and that will be expensive to replace if it ever is replaced. Such is the fate of a magic bullet force that found itself in wars that were more manpower and resource intensive than anticipated by Pentagon prophets.

The greater risk of a neo-magic bullet force is that it will only serve to reinforce America’s default strategy, a strategy of annoyance. All Strategy falls between two theoretical extremes, annihilation or exhaustion. But a strategy of annihilation, unfortunately, can’t exist outside of works of popular fiction. In practice, all strategies are strategies of exhaustion.

Strategy is the accumulation of favorable events that arise from time to time as the strategist meddles in the fluid balance between the competing poles of the Trinity of passion, contingency, and reason. The rational goal of strategy is accumulating enough positive events before the accumulation of negative events exhausts you. Since the most powerful pole of Clausewitz’s trinity is contingency, a great deal of strategy is focused on constructively twiddling your thumbs until something turns up that bears promise for your melange of wants and needs. You want to keep this thumb twiddling constructive enough to vent your passions so they don’t dangerously accumulate and explosively distort your carefully reasoned plans.

The feebleness of reason, the intensity of passion, and the unknowability of contingency make strategic effort a trial by exhaustion and not a one-time shot with a magic bullet. Reason is sorely tested by exhausting and unpredictable events that creating moral attrition, supplemented as needed with the wear of material attrition. The extended nature of strategies of exhaustion are murder to just-in-time élite forces. Their heir moral and physical endurance lacks the margin of safety that forces built with an eye towards strategic redundancy are equipped with. Man for man, weapon for weapon, blow for blow, the magic bullet force is more prone to falling victim to the murderous arithmetic of war simply because man for man, weapon for weapon, blow for blow, there is less force to go around.

The U.S. system of government is designed around the institutionalized stasis of factional trench warfare. Governmental power derives from the consent of contingency, built on system of representation heavily tilted towards votes cast by catastrophe. Based on the rule of crisis, not of men, the U.S. federal government creaks limply forward only under the lash of perceived calamity. In such an environment, without a crisis (real or manufactured) at hand, strategy leans imperceptibly towards the unhappy medium of a strategy of annoyance. Reasons of state demand that strategically substantive and consequential action be taken from time to time. But the inertia of the system demands that nothing be done within the system to raise an inconvenient stir or distract the American public from its patriotic consumption. This places two constraints on strategically significant action:

  1. It must be small enough to escape sustained public awareness.
  2. It must be big enough to have real strategic effect.

The result of struggling to square these two incompatible constraints is settling by default on a strategy of annoyance. A strategy of annoyance is big enough to irritate an enemy but not big enough to produce real strategic effect. It produces increased friction for the U.S. from the enemy so irritated without the compensating strategic effects that build toward real strategic gain.

A strategy with a strain of annoyance is a useful part of a wider strategy of exhaustion whether it’s called harrying, harassing, or worrying the enemy. Constant yet unpredictably applied annoyance can enervate an enemy and contribute towards moral and material exhaustion. However, a strategy that ends up being 100% based on annoyance is likely to produce an aroused enemy without the benefits of decisively contributing towards knocking him down, increasing your own moral and material exhaustion.

The life of the late and unlamented Osama bin Laden is one example of the consequences of a strategic vacuüm that limply defaults to annoyance. American efforts were enough to get Bin Laden deported from the relative comforts of the Sudan, making him leave behind his stuff and property, but not enough to leave Bin Laden an unrecognized hump of dismembered viscera dumped on the side of a Khartoum road for the jackals and vultures to feast on. So Osama Bin Laden found himself in backwoods Afghanistan, hanging out with a bunch of rubes.

Though his primordial enmity was already tilted against the United States, his escape from the Sudan with his life but not his property greatly annoyed Bin Laden without decisively deterring him. This set off a series of events that eventually led to this tense photo opportunity where the senior officials of the world’s ostensible hegemonic power spent a great deal of time worrying intently about the complications caused by killing a man who, a mere 15 years before, had been a branding manager for the family construction business:



The assisted death of Bin Laden in Khartoum in 1996 would have been a strategic triumph. The assisted death of Bin Laden in 2011 was a strategic whimper. But the former wouldn’t have happened because the political environment of 1996 ruled out action consequential enough to produce strategic effect. The latter happened because, after Bin Laden inflicted ~40,000 casualties on this nation, the situation in 2011 was downright encouraging towards his assisted departure from this life.

A magic bullet force strongly favors an aimless drift towards a default strategy of annoyance. After all, it’s big enough to make the Madeline Albrights ask “What’s the point of you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”, which means, of course, it will inevitably get used. But it’s too small to produce decisive strategic effect unless your enemy is Mauritius or Belize.

The political economy of our times may favor creation of small professional mercenary regular forces to guard the élite cosmopolitans that huddle in the urban city states/resilient communities envisioned by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, John Robb, or Parag Khanna. The primary role of such forces is guard duty and the occasional punitive raid into the surrounding favelas. If the scope of warfare follows its trend since Waterloo, with a battle line of up to a mile widening to a front that extends from the Atlantic to the Swiss border to a nation at war where civilians are under constant threat of aerial bombardment to a pervasive war of all against all where there is no front and war is everywhere, such forces may become the (organized) norm.

In its weak form, the Efficient Violence Hypothesis (EVH) posits that any human group tends to evolve the social form that will best coerce its members and other groups. In its more fantastic strong form, the EVH posits that a human group is always and instantaneously organized in the way that will best apply violence to its members and other groups while pursuing power, control, and purpose. Whether magic bullet forces are the most effective social form for applying violence to Americans and passersby is unknowable at this point in these forces’ evolution. It may turn out that alternative forms for applying social violence like the mass participatory conscript armies that dominated between the American Civil War and Vietnam and the mass participatory electorates that coalesced to sustain them are obsolescent in today’s political economy as the Mongol hordes or the Greco-Macedonian phalanx.

The general principle remains: Master Sun wisely advised the warring kings of the late Spring and Autumn period to mix orthodox and unorthodox to produce victory. However, he would have never advised them to be all unorthodox all the time. The emphasis on élite formations on the scale envisioned by America’s most enthusiastic magic bulletheads seeks to institutionalize the unorthodox. Master Sun would have scoffed at this long-nosed red-headed Eastern barbarian idiocy. He knew that the unorthodox, when overemployed, ceases to be unorthodox and becomes orthodox.

The oblique order was a bang at Leuthen but a whimper at the first “end of history“. Charles of Lorraine was strategically affected. Buonaparte was only strategically annoyed. The moral of the story is provided by Mr. Clint Eastwood in the Western classic Hang ‘Em High:

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About Joseph Fouche

L. C. Rees carefully selected the nom de guerre "Joseph Fouche" to profoundly irritate unnaturally rampant pro-Buonopartist sentiment at Skyline High School, Millcreek, Salt Lake, Utah, United States. The Corsican Ogre once claimed that he would have remained "Emperor of the French" if he'd had two men shot: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord and Joseph Fouche. SInce Rees bears no resemblance to a club-footed defrocked bishop, Joseph Fouche it was.

2 thoughts on “Unhappy Medium: The Perils of Annoyance as Your Strategic Default

  1. Good post. Annoyance was part and parcel the mutual harassement between US and Soviet forces–particularly their navies. There are photos of aircraft from both sides flying dangerously close to our formations. I rode submarines for the last 10 years of the Cold War and almost every time we put to sea on a strategic deterrent patrol, a Soviet “trawler” awaited us at the international waters boundary—typically, the trawler would pursue at a respectable distance and watch for our dive point. I wondered at the time how much operational art on both sides was in response to or in spite of these up-close encounters.
    Some continue to speculate the USS Scorpion was a victim of this quiet war of mutual harassment.
    But reduced to two combatants (as Clausewitz, I believe, theorized—my Clausewitz is a little thin), common sense dictates that one party will eventually tire of being annoyed and resolve to remove said annoyance.
    That said, your post reflects a rational view of our world—and we know from history, rationality at the national level can sometimes be decidedly irrational in the long haul.

  2. Tactics of harassment are part and parcel of interstate interactions. Tactical annoyance is fine. It’s when we elevate annoyance to a strategic expedient that we get messed up.

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