To the Brink

Two observations, centuries and disciplines apart. The first observation comes from Carl von Clausewitz as channelled by Michael Howard and Peter Paret:

Essentially war is fighting, for fighting is the only effective principle in the manifold activities generally designated as war. Fighting, in turn, is a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of the latter.

The second observation comes from investor Benjamin Graham:

In the short-term, the stock market behaves like a voting machine –but in the long-term, it acts like a weighing machine.

Some common threads between these two observations:

  1. Moral forces, a product of willpower, are more a matter of voting machines than weighing machines.
  2. In the short-term, as voting machines, moral forces are the decisive force in war.
  3. In the long-term, as weighing machines, physical forces are the decisive force in war.
  4. Strategy is attrition, the exhaustion of the enemy through moral and physical blows that cast enough votes against him to cumulatively weigh against him.
  5. Moral force can cast a decisive vote if a war can be kept short.
  6. If a war is prolonged, the weight of physical force will be decisive.

One reason why war remains intrinsic to the human condition is the lack of a clear-cut way to tell how far each side in a political dispute can go and will go to resolve the dispute in their favor. This quandary arises from two further problems, one fairly obvious and one less so. The first problem the obvious possibility that one side will fail to gauge how far the other side can go and will go. The second problem is the less obvious possibility that the other side will fail to gauge how far it can and will go.

The distinction between can go and will go is important. The first is primarily a matter of the weight of physical force one side can mobilize. The second is primarily a matter of the votes of moral force one side can muster. One side may have a decisive weight of physical force but lack the votes of moral force to bring than physical force to bear. One side may have all the willpower that the votes of moral force can drum up but lack the weight of physical force to back up the bark of its willpower with physical bite.

Diagnosing the line between the voting power of moral forces and the weighing power of physical force is an inexact art, not an exact science. Making the effort more difficult is a constant flux between what is a matter of voting and what is a matter of weighing. This makes calculating the line between what is hard physical force and what is soft moral force a wild attempt to pin the tail on the donkey while the donkey is moving at a full gallop.

Both sides will often be drawn into brinkmanship because one or both has a poor grasp on how far the other side can go and will go and an equally poor grasp on how far they can go and will go. Teetering on the brink, one or both sides may develop a better grasp how far the other side can and will go and how far they can and will go. This learning and signaling process is complicated by brinkmanship’s nature as a complexly interactive process. The line between can do and will do can be decisively shifted by events leading up to brink. At the brink, when war and peace are in the balance, perceptions of what one or the other can and will do and shifts in those perceptions can, and often have, led everyone over the brink and submit all sides to trial by the hard hand of war.

War is not only complicated by the shifting line between voting and weighing before it breaks out. It is complicated by shifts in the line between will do and can do after war breaks out. While Clausewitz’s advice that you should understand what kind of war you’re undertaking before you get into it is frequently batted about in our contemporary “rational policymaking” world, Clausewitz’s recognition that the kind of war you started off with may not be the kind of war you find yourself fighting or the kind of war you find yourself winning or losing at its end is not. The purpose and conduct of a war can be shifted as much by the opportunities opened or possibilities foreclosed as it unfolds as by its initial causes.

The primordial forces of passion and violence unleashed by the outbreak of war and the play of chance and probability may subtly warp, overtly disrupt, or even overwhelm the strongest best-laid instrumental subordination of war to the policy dictates of pure reason. The weight of two poles of the first Trinity can decisively shift the course of war in spite of and even because of all the votes cast by one pole. Throughout, gauging just what you will or could do to force what you would and can do to change what the other side would or could do remains frightfully imprecise, the victim of the churn of happenstance and friction.

World War I is a case in point. While some pre-war prognosticators like Ivan Bloch foresaw that a general European war fought with the military technology of the era would be a long, indecisive, and bloody weighing of raw physical forces, many European military leaders were still preparing for a short trial decided by the votes of moral forces like elan vital and kultur.  When it came to war they were surprised to be engaged in a long, bloody, and indecisive slog. Instead of a short war of dramatic Napoleonic manuever, they found themselves fighting a long war of mutual assured exhaustion.

World War I is often dismissed as a deliberate war of attrition. This may have been true only in certain campaigns like Verdun, where Erich von Falkenhayn later claimed he was deliberately attempting to bleed France white. In most cases, however, attrition was not the goal. The high casualties of campaigns like the Somme, Passchendaele, or Meuse-Argonne were caused by repeated attempts to achieve strategic paralysis in a single blow. Offensive minded generals repeatedly launched catastrophic assaults on enemy lines with the basic assumption that, if they finally breached the final trench line, the entire enemy war effort would collapse. Douglas Haig, a former cavalryman, repeatedly brought up his calvary in the expectation that he would finally, finally be able to exploit a decisive break through and gallop to Berlin.

Unfortunately, the tactical and operational realities of the first three years of the war, especially on the Western front, repeatedly frustrated their search for a magic bullet. Weight of shell, the slow plodding pace of feet through shell churned mud, and no portable communications kept the offense from reaching the speed necessary to achieve even tactical or operational breakthroughs, let alone the chimera of strategic paralysis brought about the “Big Breakthrough”. If World War I was a war of attrition, it was by default and not by design.

A few observers like Hans Delbruk knew they were fighting a war of attrition that demanded a deliberate strategy of exhaustion. A few military leaders such as Phillipe Petain actually fought a war of attrition according to a deliberate strategy of exhaustion. Petain correctly diagnosed that the technology available in 1914-1918 dictated that “artillery conquers, infantry occupies” and proceeded to salvage a proper strategy of exhaustion from the French war effort.

The assumption of a short decisive military campaign lulled Europe into war in 1914. The level of destruction they encountered in 1914 and their knowledge that armies, economies, and societies could take such a beating and keep on ticking to greater demands for effort and greater demands for spoils of victory to justify the lives, treasure, and material sacrificed. The revelation that, at least over a two or three-year period, a developed nation-state of the second industrial revolution was less fragile, more resilient, and more potent than imagined before the war led to the governments of the combatants pursuing ends that were the equal of this newly unveiled power.

The totalitarian instinct that coalesced during the first World War and reached fatal concentration in the second was stoked and fed by the greater social potency forged by the hammer blows of war. Policymakers in the warring powers not only had to make decisions based on goals set according to humbler prewar benchmarks but decisions on new goals that seemed possible according to more ambitions benchmarks of wartime. Their enemies had to gauge intentions based not only on their imperfect prewar knowledge of their purpose and power but their even more imperfect knowledge of their new purposes and power revealed by the votes and weighing of World War I. When they fell short, policymakers often fell from power and were replaced by men whose grasp on the newly revealed purposes and potency seemed more assured and more accurate. While sometimes their assurance and accuracy was thrown into doubt by their interaction with events, enough policy makers chose to muddled through that eventually Germany’s collective nerves broke and the Allies’s nerves stayed composed enough to crawl across the finish line.

Even then, the line between what Germany could do in November 1918 and what Germany did do in November 1918 was ambiguous enough that a German consensus emerged that they could have gone on fighting past 11/11/1918 but they’d been stabbed in the back and starved into submission by tricksey miscreants at home and abroad. Since their gauge on what they could do and what they did do in 1918 by murky, once Hitler came along and proposed that they definitively establish once and for all what Germany could and would do and what its enemies could and would do to stop it, the German people were more than game to find out. So World War II came and went and the Germans demonstrated fully what they could and would do when they faced the spirit of November 1918 all over again.

Unfortunately, World War II was an interactively complex fact-finding process. Germany’s enemies proved that they would and could flatten German cities, kill and displace millions of Germans, eliminate, capture, and convict its leaders, occupy its territory, and partition it for over 40 years. The answer was definitive enough that Germany hasn’t tried the combined resolve of the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Northern Ireland, the Third Fourth Fifth Republic of France, and the Russian Empire Union of Soviet Socialist Republics Russian Federation since.

As long as the signaling and interpretation of resolve and power, both moral and physical, remains prone to misunderstanding and miscalculation, bouts of brinkmanship are inevitable and bouts of war are possible. Whether it’s possible for mortal man, doomed to die, to close that gap and eliminate war from his experience is doubtful. As long as there are men, there will be politics. As long as there is politics, there will be a division of power. As long as there is a division of power, there will be a struggle over power. As long as there is a struggle for power, there will be brinkmanship over political disputes. As long as there are disputes that bring men to the brink, the chance for war will be ever-present and ever-threatening.

Cross-posted from the Committee of Public Safety.

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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.

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