Credibility, Ends, and Means: Part I

Lavrentiy Beria’s son Sergo published My Father: Inside Stalin’s Kremlin in 2003. Sergo portrayed his father as an anti-Communist Georgian patriot who was trying to free his plucky little homeland by destroying the USSR from the inside out, a loving husband and father, and a man maligned by history. Sergo Beria’s rosy picture stands in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom on Lavrentiy Beria. The conventional Beria was the head of Josef Stalin’s NKVD, the father of the Soviet atom and hydrogen bomb projects, and one of the great monsters of the twentieth century. Stalin (demonstrating what passed for Stalinist humor) himself mortified the elder Beria to by introducing him to Franklin D. Roosevelt as “our Himmler”.

Young Beria’s book had a large credibility gap to clear. And it fell short. Sergo Beria’s portrayal of his father within the Beria family may be the truth as he remembers it. History records almost as many examples of men who were monsters at work but saints at home as it does of men who were saints at work but monsters at home. Sergo Beria’s portrayal of his father’s political views may reflect what his father told him they were. They may even be what the elder Beria believed his views were. But within Pa Beria’s mind there were many compartments. The extant historical record convincingly demonstrates that the elder Beria kept many of them compartmentalized away from his family. The younger Beria may know more about what was in those hidden compartments than he lets on. He may simply be ignorant that those compartments and their sordid contents even existed.

We don’t know, hence Sergo Beria’s credibility gap.

With that large asterisk in mind, Sergo Beria’s tale about one of the great mysteries of twentieth century history hints at how credibility is managed within the overall framework of statecraft. The circumstances surrounding the genesis of Operation Barbarossa and Stalin’s peculiar (for him) behavior before and after June 22, 1941 have baffled many observers. The conventional narrative is that Stalin obstinately refused to heed the many warnings provided by his world-class intelligence services and others, trusted Hitler too much, and refused to put the Red Army on alert, leaving it open to the massive damage it and all of Russia suffered at German hands during World War II. The biggest problem with this version is that credulity and trust are not the species of personality trait that Stalin normally displayed. So the conventional narrative asks us to believe that, for much of 1940-1941, Stalin ceased to be Stalin.

The leading counter-narrative about the beginnings of Operation Barbarossa was popularized in the 1987 book Icebreaker by V. B. Resun, a Soviet military intelligence apparatchik who defected to the West in 1978 and published many books under the pseudonym “Viktor Suvorov”. In Icebreaker, Resun claimed that the Red Army was thrown into fatal disarray because it was forward deployed in an offensive and not defensive posture. Stalin was planning on doing to Hitler what Hitler did to him with the only difference being that Hitler beat him to the punch and attacked first. Stalin was surprised because he’d finally met a man as duplicitous as he was.

Sergo Beria’s account of what happened in June 1941, if accurate, provides a bridge of understanding between the conventional and revisionist narratives. The younger Beria claims that Stalin knew that the Germans were going to attack but that Stalin wanted the Germans to attack first since Stalin pull off one of the greatest reverse flip-flops in human history. While the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia on August 23, 1939 had cleared the way for Stalin to partition Poland with German, sweep up the Baltic states, and extract territory from Romania, it’d left many in the West disillusioned with Stalin and his USSR. During the 1930s, a significant slice of Western opinion thought that Soviet Communism was the future. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact however, many were shocked out of this opinion since they’d seen the future and, whatever the future was. it didn’t re-partition Poland, annex the Baltics, or attack Finland. While Stalin’s hardened cadre of fifth columnists, fellow travelers, hidden agents of influence, useful idiots, and true believers reliably pivoted 180 degrees and relayed the new official Comintern line without deviation and with perfect devotion, a crucial swing constituency within Western public was lost. After Germany’s surprise conquest of France in May-June 1940, Stalin foresaw that he would need to win back this constituency if the Soviet relationship with the now more powerful Germany went south.

Sergo Beria claims that Stalin was fully aware of the panicked reports coming in from Richard Sorge and other Soviet intelligence assets. But Stalin calculated that the USSR would never regain its credibility in the West unless Germany clearly and unequivocally demonstrated that it was the aggressor. The younger Beria further claims that Stalin believed that all the expensive weapons produced by all those Five-Year Plans would enable the Red Army to absorb the initial German attack at the border and then immediately go on the offensive against the Wehrmacht. Sergo Beria implies that the Red Army was deployed in a defensive offensive formation. Whichever formation it was in, however, Stalin underestimated the tactical potency of the Wehrmacht and was shocked at the destruction wreaked on the Red Army in the first weeks of Barbarossa. It was this shock which, if Beria’s account is credible, explains Stalin’s well-attested absence during the first week of the German invasion.

Stalin was successful in regaining his credibility in the West but his success didn’t come cheap: it came at the cost of 25 million lives, untold destruction of property, and, for those that lived, suffering on an unprecedented scale. Even the incorrigible old reactionary Winston Spencer Churchill was forced to concede that, “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” and play along with his old enemy. The swing in public opinion was dramatic enough that, at least for a time, large swaths of Western public opinion could credibly mistake the architect of the Great Terror for kindly Uncle Joe. In this, the darkest hour in Russia’s history and his own career, Stalin enjoyed a rare moment of general, and positive, credible influence among people who didn’t happen to be his avowed or covert personal creatures.

But the one form of credibility that Stalin never lost was his negative credibility. From the moment that the Bolsheviks seized power during November 1917, they credibly demonstrated to incumbent power elites outside of Russia that communist revolution or conquest meant that they, their property, and their culture would be inevitably, efficiently, and utterly liquidated down to the last man, woman, child, and book entry. As Japan’s fortunes faded during World War II, Hirohito saw hints of revolution in the faces of Japanese civilians as he was driven through the burnt out remains of Tokyo. He and the Japanese imperial establishment saw the threat of quiet fifth columnists at home meeting up with the oncoming Soviet juggernaut. Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave them an excuse to throw the Japanese Army and its extremist nut jobs overboard and conditionally unconditionally surrender.

The Americans were erratic and prone to unpredictable swings between rage and sweetness. However, with the Americans there was always the possibility of hanging on until there was a favorable turn in policy. There was no such hope with the Russians: the Soviets consistently lived up to their reputation for wanton brutality. The threat of Soviet annihilation was more credible than the schizophrenic Americans promises of absolute destruction and absolute mercy.

Credibility, like all constructs of human imagination, is a mixed bag of deceptive simplicity and unfathomable complexity. If it were as simple as some leaders promise and much of  the public believe, establishing credibility would be easy. Consent would be manufactured as the inevitable byproduct of a sort of credibility by algebra where X end  + Y means = Z certain result. People could instantly tell you were credible: after all, your lips were moving.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

A Black Swan at 70: The Care and Feeding of Pearl Harbor









In statecraft, there are:

  • truths: Oahu is an island.
  • assumptions: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good naval anchorage.
  • theories: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good naval anchorage. Ships based at Pearl Harbor can sortie into the western Pacific at will and block attacks into the eastern Pacific.
  • hypotheses: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good naval anchorage. Ships based at Pearl Harbor can sortie into the western Pacific at will and block attacks into the eastern Pacific. Basing the U.S. Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor instead of San Diego is close enough to deter Japan but far away enough to keep it safe from Japanese attack.
  • guesses: Oahu is an island. Pearl Harbor is a good naval anchorage. Ships based at Pearl Harbor can sortie into the western Pacific at will and block attacks into the eastern Pacific. Basing the U.S. Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor instead of San Diego is close enough to deter Japan but far away enough to keep it safe from Japanese attack. The Japanese lack the competence, will, or capability to attack Pearl Harbor with planes launched from carriers.

These are all examples of faith. Eventually, they all end up reduced to fable. But each flavor of faith or fable differs in the rigor of ritualized attention it demanda, the fallout triggered when it is followed or ignored, and the lessons it aspires to teach listeners and true believers. The biggest risk in statecraft is mistaking one kind of faith or fable for another and acting on that mistaken notion. Acting on a guess that you’ve mistaken for truth when the truth is that it is only a guess reveals the mismatch between hard truth and hazy guess. It’s the impact of these mismatches that separates the harmful from the harmless and the tolerable from the inevitably fatal.

Continue reading

Two Tweets, Two Podcasts, and the Man Behind the Curtain

Dropping the man behind the curtain
Dropping the man behind the curtain

Cyber warrior Samuel Liles tweets:

Some guy named Andy Marshall keeps coming up in my life. I’m still not sure why.

Followed by:

Every time I hit a new concept scratched on the bottom is “Andy Marshall was here”

The Pritzker Military Library recently recorded two podcasts, one with Karl Marlantes on What it’s Like to go to War, the other with Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb on Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.

The Kalbs cover how American defeat in Vietnam shaped presidential decisions about war and peace. During their presentation, the elder Kalb, a thirty year veteran of the Washington media-political complex, commented that policymaking, especially in diplomacy and defense, changes very little from president to president. Obama, age three at the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and age thirteen when the last helicopter took off from Saigon, is as wound up in Vietnam as Obama appointees like the late Richard Holbrooke, a Foreign Service Officer in Vietnam from 1962-1969. Obama’s foreign policy, to the chagrin of the naifs that voted him in, is the continuation of his predecessor’s second term with an admixture of the rhetoric of love and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Marlantes discusses war and its spiritual impact on those that fight it in the light of his own experience as a young Marine officer serving in Vietnam and the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered decades afterward. At the end of his presentation, Marlantes decries the all-volunteer military with two anecdotes from his book tours:

Continue reading

The Road to the Future, Lit by London Burning

One advantage that the classical Marxist strategist has over his class enemies is an ideology that conditions him to see the strategic continuum from influence to violence as one eternal round. To the classical Marxist, all politics is not only the division of power but the division of material power. Since there is no reality higher than material reality, mankind’s only concern is material.

Marxism proposes to abolish concern by abolishing politics. One glorious day, the division of material power will end forever in a single division of power controlled by all, for all. Politics will wither away, leaving behind a House of Peace, free of all concern. In this post-political dreamtime of communism, influence will be the sole swayer of man’s soul, speaking in perfected reason. Until the great and dreadful day of withering away, the Marxist strategist fights in a House of War, living in a state of war ruled by violence. The entire spectrum of strategic power, both influence and violence, lies ready at his disposal. Anything within reach can be weaponized at the discretion of the strategist. With revolutionary fervor, varying threads of influence and violence can be woven into combined arms efforts for use in a no-holds class struggle to abolish politics with politics.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

The Chains of the Improbable vs. The Chains of the Impossible

Lucius Cornelius Sulla

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix

An old Vulcan proverb advises us that only Sulla could march on Rome. This proverb may contradict another ancient proverb that claims that all roads lead to Rome. This seeming contradiction is resolved when you include little used roads, off the beaten track, the roads not taken. Sherlock Holmes once chided John A. Watson, M.D., saying, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Some roads to Rome are impossible, leading to the insurmountable. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix took a road that, while thought impossible, proved to be merely improbable.

Sulla, consul of Rome for the year 88 B.C., was in camp preparing to take his army east to fight King Mithridates VI of Pontus. Two envoys arrived to tell him that his command had been taken away by the vote of one of the people’s assemblies in Rome. These envoys of the Roman people expected that Sulla would do the only thing possible: lie down there, obedient to their commands, as every Roman army commander before him had done. Unfortunately, what they thought was impossible was only improbable.

Sulla gathered his men, announced what the will of the Roman people was, and asked them what the will of the army was. Sulla’s soldiers answered by stoning the envoys of the Roman people to death, much to the surprise of the envoys of the people. Sulla’s soldiers then petitioned Sulla to take an impossible road, a road never taken, and lead them to Rome to reclaim his Mithridatic command. Sulla, much to the surprise of his own officers, who thought such a course impossible, decided to heed his men and march on Rome. His officers resigned en masse except a happy few. But the poor bloody legionaries of Sulla’s army eagerly began the march on Rome.

Envoys from Rome streamed towards Sulla’s army as it marched north.These envoys were shocked and grew increasingly shocked as they protested to Sulla that surely, surely it was impossible that he wanted to march a Roman army through the city limits and into Rome itself. The law forbade it. The unwritten constitution forbade it. The Republic forbade it. The gods forbade it.

Sulla responded to the effect of, “Go tell the Romans that I don’t lie here obedient to their commands. I’m coming to Rome and hell’s coming with me.” The tone of these envoys’ entreaties and the mood of the people of Rome grew increasingly hysterical as the improbable dawned on them: not only could a Roman army commander march an army on Rome, it was increasingly probable that Sulla would march armed Roman legionaries right into the heart of Rome itself to deal with his political enemies. Indeed, Sulla led his men across the sacred pomerium that divided the “public thing” (res publica) of sacred Roma herself from land that was merely the property of Rome. Sulla’s veteran legionaries easily dispatched the hastily gathered mob of gladiators and other ruffians that his political opponents had thrown together at the last moment in a futile attempt to stop them.

Sulla had revealed that the impossible was merely the improbable.

Continue reading

With Outstretched Arm

Mark Safranski posts on Responsibility to Protect (R2P):

The weirdly astrategic NATO campaign in Libya intervening on the side of ill-defined rebels against the tyrannical rule of Libyan strongman Colonel Moammar Gaddafi brought to general public attention the idea of “Responsibility to Protect” as a putative doctrine for US foreign policy and an alleged aspect of international law…

Hopefully, there will be greater and wider debate in the future because, in it’s current policy trajectory, R2P is going to become “the new COIN”.

This is not to say that R2P is a military doctrine, but like the rise of pop-centric COIN, it will be an electrifying idea that has the potential fire the imagination of foreign policy intellectuals, make careers for it’s bureaucratic enthusiasts and act as a substitute for the absence of a coherent American grand strategy. The proponents of R2P (R2Peons?) appear to be in the early stages of following a policy advocacy template set down by the COINdinistas, but their ambitions appear to be far, far greater in scope.

When an idea evolves to an acronym, it’s serious. Indeed, R2P is something deadlier than military doctrine: it’s policy doctrine. Worse yet, it’s policy dogma. Once policy dogma is tightly wound around your brain stem, it’s harder to unwind than mere military dogma. Even though it’s the lesser threat, the military dogma behind R2P will prove as pernicious within the military sphere as R2P will prove within the policy sphere.

Noted Clausewitzian Antulio J. Echiavarria writes (props Adam Elkus):

Continue reading

The Really Alternative U.S. Army Reading List

Everyone, even CNASistas, is making fun of new U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey’s 26 volume attempt at a “professional reading list“. This Committee, ever eager to jump on the newest, hippest trend out of the Pentagon, is as willing to dogpile on Gen. Dempsey’s list as anyone else.

Any list that includes one, let alone two, books by the Mustache of Understanding, is instantly marked “self-parody” in the Committee’s collective INBOX and deleted. After touching any field of human inquiry, the Mustache of Understanding leaves PowerPoint in his wake and calls it wisdom. The Mustache of Understanding’s works may be of interest to future historians looking back on our age. But that sort of interest will be the same sort of forensic interest that epidemiologists summon when examining smallpox under a microscope in a cleanroom.

In the spirit of fairness to the good general, the Committee here offers up its own twenty-six books for the aspiring strategic professional:

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

How Many Divisions Does Standard and Poors Have?

The first American historian to exploit the untapped historical treasure trove that is Josef Stalin’s personal library once speculated that, if kindly Uncle Joe had been born Joseph Steele in Gorey, Georgia, USA on December 18, 1978 instead of Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili on 6 December 1878 (Old Style) in Gori, Georgia, Russia, he would be one of the great consumer marketers of the age. Though this counter-factual was gleaned from his detailed forensics on the color pencil annotations Stalin festooned his personal readings with, perhaps there is other evidence for his contention.

From witnesses, we know Stalin that routinely presented different faces to different audiences. To useful idiots he was Josef the Peacemaker and Josef the Progressive, fighting the good fight against the warmongering imperialists who teetered fearfully on the brink of the ash heap of history. To Russians, he was the new Little Father. To his mother he was a dutiful, if distant, son:

Mother Stalin: Joseph—who exactly are you now?

Uncle Joe: Do you remember the tsar? Well, I’m like a tsar.

Mother Stalin: You’d have done better to have become a priest!

Other witnesses suggest that Stalin occasionally played the supervillan for visiting Westerners. Whether he played off his mass murderous reputation among some of his Western contemporaries out of political calculus or mischief we don’t know:

  • At Tehran, Stalin, with Molotov playing his usual role as straight man, proposed killing 50,000-100,000 German staff officers at war’s end. FDR gamingly suggested they stop at 49,000. Churchill stormed out in fury. Stalin and Molotov followed Churchill out into the hall and reassured him that Stalin was only joking…
  • At Yalta, Beria waited impatiently for his introduction to FDR. Poor Beria rarely had the chance shine on the international stage. Now it was his time to shine. Stalin, after drawing things out, making Beria wait and wait, introduced Beria to FDR as “our Himmler”…

In 1935, visiting French politician (and future Vichy collaborator) Pierre Laval asked Stalin to ease up his rough treatment of Soviet Catholics. Laval argued that this thrown bone would strengthen France’s clout with the Vatican and help France to persuade the Pope to oppose the rising Nazis threat more fervently. Stalin dismissed Laval’s request, snorting sarcastically, “The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”

Ironically for Uncle Joe, it turned out that there was at least one Pope could command enough divisions to contribute towards fatally undermining Stalin’s own handiwork.

Stalin, though politically an ideological fanatic, was the ultimate tactical realist of the twentieth century, conducting amoral power politics with classic nineteenth century Bismarckian brio. This realism was helped along by Stalin’s intense belief that agreements with imperialists were, like Brest-Litovisk, short-term expedients. Such bourgeois pieces of paper, along with the doomed bourgeois they were negotiated with, would be swept away in a Red tide of inevitability. One partial explanation for the “low point” of Stalin’s career, that curious lassitude he displayed in the months leading up to Barbarossa, is his perfectly realistic calculation that not even Hitler was stupid enough to voluntarily fight a two front war in Europe.

Unfortunately, Hitler’s actions marched to the very different beat of the little Austrian corporal’s drummer and Stalin studiously ignored what he could hear of Hitler’s drumbeats. LIke Papen, Hugenberg, Schacht, Hindenburg, Chamberlain, and others before him, Stalin failed to grasp that Hitler’s rules were not Stalin’s rules and that Hitler’s ideas of the possible were not Stalin’s ideas of the possible. Bridging the yawning gulf between the two men’s perceptions consumed the destinies of billions.

In our own frantic moment, when the imagined and the real are in flux, we might echo Uncle Joe’s sarcasm: How many divisions does Standard and Poors have?

Continue reading