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Public interest in understanding war is atrophying, and what little is left is diluted. War is now waged against every vague problem mankind suffers from. There is war on terrorism, on drugs, and on poverty. The Classics of military theory have even been adapted for the economic world, with Clausewitz and Sun Tzu dispensing business strategies. The lack of public literacy in actual warfare is made worse by experts who speak of the subject in terms of numbers and data points. War is no more or less than violence between people, people are at the heart of the study of war. With a major revision to the Army’s Field Manual for Counterinsurgency (FM 3-24) coming soon people ought to be encouraged to learn about the fundamentals of war again so they can evaluate the new directions their military takes.
There is no war against people who do not resist: only savagery and murder. There is no war against the cruel methods of extremists, narcotics, or economic conditions because they neither act on their own nor fight back. It takes two willful and opposing belligerents to create conflict. People make the conditions we observe, not ideas and impersonal forces. War against an abstract like terrorism clouds the view of whom we fight, what must be done to upset their plans, and what sacrifices we are willing to make against them. People fight because they choose to do so, even if we cannot understand why. Suicide bomb vests are repellant to most people but by themselves are inert. Terrorism cannot exist apart from terrorists, and our understanding of war cannot exist apart from understanding the people in it.
People are resourceful and adaptive which makes the wars they fight dynamic. Each side responds to changes in their environment and their opponent’s strategy. The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz observed that these repeated reactions create a center of gravity in war, something Clausewitz scholar Dr. Christopher Bassford clarifies by writing:
“The latter metaphor (a wrestling match) provides a much better graphic image into which to fit the famous term ‘center of gravity’. The center of gravity may be ‘the hub of all power and movement’, but it is created by the interaction between the wrestlers and changes as they alter their relationship.”
The center of gravity is not the local support an insurgent enjoys or the destruction the U.S. military can cause, it is the way these things interact. In a war like the one in Afghanistan the hub around which everything turns is time. Neither side can destroy the other under the current conditions so the question at the heart of the war is “who will endure longest?” That question is a subjective one; it depends on how much suffering the person being asked is willing to accept. Poverty and terrorism do not experience suffering and they cannot actively maintain a shifting center of gravity, war against them looks nothing like actual war.
Thinking that war can be waged against those impersonal forces fosters a sterile approach to understanding it. Many scholars assume that despite the complexity, unquantifiable human element, and fluidity of war that it can still be known in detail. They see each body count, each ton of equipment, as a particle of data whose position and trajectory can help them predict the future. Things like technical capabilities, manpower figures, and logistical demands all seem so fixed and definite that they beg to be used for calculation. Yet war affects all areas of life and in turn people use all areas of life to affect war, creating too many variables to keep track of. Even if we could identify and monitor all the relevant variables no one would have enough time to process that mountain of information.
The task is frequently attempted, though. Experts even try to wring mathematical simplicity out of forms of war that are supposed to be subtle and artful like counterinsurgency, where victory is pursued indirectly by protecting a contested population. Complex human interactions are reduced to a formula, usually around 20 counterinsurgents for every 1000 locals. The people advocating that ratio know such a reduction is too easy and qualify their suggestion as a rule of thumb, but even as a generalization it encourages the idea that the innumerable different experiences in war can be averaged together to create meaningful insights.
What those insights are changes with every person asked. In FM 3-24 the Army put the ratio between 20:1000 and 25:1000. A study by the Army’s Combat Studies Institute shortly after FM 3-24 was released put the ratio at 13.26:1000, the result of a review of several successful counter-insurgencies. Still another report from the Army’s Counterinsurgency Center released in 2012 suggested a ratio of 40:1000 while advocating even more counterinsurgents if at all possible. Something that was supposed to be a rule of thumb has spawned more formal studies and specific numbers than just these. The truth is that this is what happens when studying complicated human affairs. Each paper studied different wars, different numbers of wars, and none included wars prior to 1899. That last fact alone means centuries worth of relevant wars were completely ignored. The whole empirical approach to understanding war should leave us with serious doubts.
We have to come back to people then, each one of them unique, as the only fighters and shapers of war. There is a danger in the empirical mode of reasoning that it will lead us to think of those thousand locals, or twenty counterinsurgents, as homogenous units of human being. Thinking that way blinds us to the real differences in values and preferences between all individuals, or even to changes in the same individual at different times. FM 3-24 recognizes the effects of this truth without recognizing their cause when it proclaims that one of the central paradoxes in counterinsurgency theory is that “If a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next”. If men were so easily represented by numbers this paradox would not exist.
While most people will never go to war that does not mean that the study of it is off limits to them. Wars are fought by their fellow man, with whom they can relate. While we cannot find easy answers by averaging the data of wars past we can understand war in another way. If you believe that the way I do then share this article with those who don’t visit the military blogs and journals we frequent. Encouraging the general public to learn about war again will help them keep their leaders honest and their foreign policy strong.