Attrition on the Cheap

In a recent post, I speculated that zombie military doctrines like the “revolution in military affairs”, “effects based operations”, or “network centric warfare” could bloom afresh in the debris left by the ravages of policy doctrines like “responsibility to protect”. I deliberately refrained from framing the negative consequences of such resurrections as solely a bad retread of past schools of military thought that advocated what author James Kiras called “strategic paralysis”.

Military doctrines in the strategic paralysis tradition advocate winning quick, cheap, and easy victories by targeting the enemies critical centers of gravity. Fellow FHI blogger Adam Elkus pointed out in his recent Small Wars Journal article on The Rise and Decline of Strategic Paralysis that the embryonic 20th century version this military doctrine first formulated by the occultist J.F.C. Fuller in his Plan 1919 were based on a crude analogy to the human body. No wonder they required a special type of magick.

The enemy leadership was the brain, logistics was the blood stream, frontline soldiers in the trenches were hands, and so forth. Fuller’s plan 1919 argued that the new technologies of airpower and armor could use speed, maneuver, and surprise to put a bullet through the “brain” and “central nervous system” of the enemy army. This sudden decapitation would leave the extremities of the army mindless and without direction. Like a man who’d been paralyzed by damage to his spine or brain, the enemy army would be paralyzed by the destruction of its high command or critical military infrastructure. Hence Kiras’ description of the military doctrines of this tradition as strategic “paralysis”.

The Libyan intervention has certainly tempted the strategic paralyzers with the prospect of painless precision warfare. While that’s a danger, there’s another threat that our third intervention in Libya presents: the prospect offered to American policymakers of a plausible strategy of attrition on the cheap.

The German military historian Hans Delbruk divided the possible approaches to military strategy in two: annihilation and attrition. Annihilation encompasses the strategic paralysis tradition. It was the dominant German military approach in the period from the Franco-Prussian War to Germany’s defeat in World War I, based on Carl von Clausewitz’s advocacy of battles of annihilation. Annihilation boasted the unreserved endorsement of the younger Clausewitz, fresh off his experiencing of the battle of annihilation at Jena-Auerstadt from the loser’s standpoint. Young Clausewitz’s enthusiasm might not have been wholeheartedly shared by the mature Clausewitz. However, young Clausewitz’s endorsement lived on in the manuscript of On War that survived Clausewitz’s death. It was young Clausewitz’s enthusiasm for annihilation that influenced later Prussian and German officers more than the older Clausewitz’s subtler advocacies.

Delbruk dissented from this tradition by arguing that attrition was the preferable military doctrine. He argued that while examples of successful tactics of annihilation were plentiful, examples of successful strategies of annihilation were scarce. Extrapolating successful tactics of annihilation such as the double-encirclement Hannibal used at Cannae into fanciful strategies of annihilation like the Moltke Plan Germany followed in August 1914 were not only wrong but dangerous. Cannae was as much a fable about a strategy of attrition forgone as it was of tactics of annihilation used. The ancients related the tale of Maharbal, the leaders of Hannibal’s cavalry:

Livy claims that immediately after the victory, Maharbal urged Hannibal to push on at once with his cavalry upon Rome itself, promising him that if he did so, within five days he should sup in the Capitol. On the refusal of his commander, Maharbal is said to have observed, that Hannibal knew indeed how to gain victories, but not how to use them.

The same war that mesmerized Graf von Schlieffen, whose scribbles on Cannae were collated by his successor the younger Moltke into the fatal war plan of August 1914, a war plan that historians erroneously blame on poor Schlieffen, also produced the Platonic ideal of a strategy of attrition in the person of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus. Fabius, eventually known by the cognomen of Cuncator or delayer, avoided the pitched set-piece battles that Hannibal had used to destroy three previous Roman armies. He would shadow Hannibal’s army, picking off Punic stragglers, destroying provisions, forcing Hannibal to respond to posturing, and punishing Italian cities that defected from Rome to Hannibal. If Hannibal tried to engage Fabius in battle, Fabius would retreat but remain close enough to harry Hannibal’s army.

The young braves of Rome, led by consuls for the year 216 B.C. Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paulus, howled for a less womanly policy than the attrition of the coward Fabius. They got their wish. The result is described by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s own Dr. Julian Bashir:

Charles Darwin’s deadly grip set in and relieved Fabius those Romans most likely to hobble his strategy. While Hannibal didn’t know what to do with a victory, Fabius knew what to do with a defeat. Cannae freed him to return without political pressure Taoist sage king strategy of attrition, grinding Hannibal to gray irrelevance.

The prospect of a Fabian strategy in the contemporary world does not fit the war of material that the Germans and Japanese despised and tried to counter with their war of spirit. The modern world is drowned in material surplus and affluence. A strategy of material exhaustion, while still important, is not the center of emphasis in a contemporary strategy of attrition. The margin of material to reduce is too thick.

A contemporary strategy of attrition targets the scarcest resource of our times: attention. Attention is an increasingly finite resource, every second of which is fought over by many public and private actors. The attrition strategy of the weak seeks to seize attention and keep it. The attrition strategy of the strong seeks to divert attention to other outlets.

The strategy of the strong is the one that tempts Western leaders today. The course of events in the Third Tripolitanian Intervention offers this semi-plausible lesson learned: if you bore Western publics and pundits with a lack of action, their attention will wander after the initial rush, leaving you free to pick at your target leisurely under the radar. Airpower, special ops, and native cannon fodder, instead of being framed as a precision tool that will achieve victory through strategic analysis, will be offered as a cheap way to grind down the enemy cheaply in a politically palatable way because it remains under the radar . This experience vaguely echoes the attritional strategies that the Russian Federation used to win the second Chechen War and the Republic of Sri Lanka used to finally crush its Tamil insurgency:

  1. Kill the media to create a shroud of anonymity (often by literally killing the media)
  2. In the media blackout, slaughter any young man that moves
  3. Profit
The studied lackadaisical attitude of the Obama Administration during the less than dramatic height of the Libya campaign, even to the point of denying there was some sort of war on or something, may reflect this. This attrition on the cheap gloss on the Libyan campaign could easily be extended to the Administration’s heroic extension of the Drone War to every corner of the globe. If, as the old Vulcan proverb claimed, only Nixon could go to China because his supposed Paleolithic-era political views insulated from hardline harping from the right, perhaps only a man nominally of the left like Barack Obama could launch an aggressive global war of attrition because he’s insulated from softline harping from the left. The prospect of a war of attrition, especially a purportedly cheap one, on a global scale far beyond what even George W. Bush contemplated, might be easier to implement from the left than from the right. That the prospect is probably as fanciful as any war of annihilation in the best strategic paralysis tradition will make little difference.
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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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