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Clausewitz Out, Computer In: Military Culture and Technological Hubris

Clausewitz Out, Computer In: Military Culture and Technological Hubris

Mini Teaser: The U.S. military ignores the teaching of Clausewitz at its own peril.

by Author(s): Williamson Murray

One of the great understudied aspects of military history concerns the institutional cultures through which officer corps come to grips with the dynamic and ambiguous problems of war and peace. That institutional culture shapes the understanding of the strategic, operational, and tactical choices before the professional soldier, and it implants as well broader assumptions concerning the historical framework in which those choices find their meaning. It is a process that proceeds by means of formal education, informal acculturation, and practical experience.

Actual events on the battlefield have traditionally exercised the principal reality check on the understandings and assumptions of any institutional military culture, this despite ample evidence that military institutions sometimes prove astonishingly resistant to learning from their experiences. And as difficult as they are to learn in combat, how much harder must it be to learn the lessons of war in peace, absent the harsh, unpredictable, and unforgiving world of death and destruction. Consequently, it is doubly important that in peacetime military professionals work hard to frame the right kind of questions and to generate realistic assumptions.

For the most part, however, the historical record suggests that peacetime military institutions postulate answers rather than questions, and adopt assumptions that speak more to their own intellectual comfort zones than to reality. American military culture has generated exceptions to this rule during the past century, in some cases dramatically so. But a major cultural shift now appears to be underway that does not bode well for the future, one that is liable to return us to a part of our past experience that is better discarded.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the American military reflected the peculiar insularities of the great republic it served. The nation had fought two great wars to that point in its history; the first, the Revolutionary War, hardly represented a standard of military professionalism, and the second, the Civil War, involved considerable tension between the nascent professional services and the novel demands of massive mobilizations of citizen soldiers and economic power. Otherwise, the American military had for the most part chased Indians and sailed on lonely stations as an annex to the Royal Navy.
But following the Philippines War the American military entered into a period of resolute professionalization. Serious institutions, such as the staff college at Fort Leavenworth and the Army and Navy War Colleges, were founded for the education as opposed to the training of officers. How those institutions functioned in peacetime explains a great deal about the successful adaptation of the American military to the challenges of the First World War. (West Point, meanwhile, was not an institution of professional military education in the nineteenth century--and many would argue that it still is not. It was an engineering and training school to turn young men into officers. Giving virtually no attention to military history, the conduct of operations, or strategy, it was in the business of turning out lieutenants.)

By the 1920s the American military services were firmly established with cultures that identified their officers as professionals, possessing a body of significant knowledge that could only be gained through systematic training, experience, and education. In that period the services received minimal funding from their civilian masters--to the extent that when war broke out in Europe in 1939, the army of the United States ranked in capabilities with the South American republics rather than with its future opponents and allies. And yet, in less than three years the U.S. Navy's carrier aviation had destroyed much of the Japanese navy's carrier force, U.S. Marines had executed an amphibious landing on Guadalcanal, and the army was preparing for landings in North Africa. Within another two years American military might would bestride the world, from the ravaged cities of Germany to the battlefields of Normandy and the Pacific.

How to explain this extraordinary transformation? Undoubtedly the massive arsenal of American industry was a crucial factor. But of great importance also was the cultural and intellectual verve of the U.S. officer corps that had been nurtured in the war colleges and staff colleges during the interwar period. The institutional ethos established there not only insisted that it was important for officers to go to school, but that many of them should serve on the faculties of those institutions as well. The future Admiral Raymond Spruance attended the Naval War College as a student, and then went on to serve two separate tours on the faculty. Ernest King was promoted to rear admiral while at the war college. A substantial number of the air leaders in the Second World War not only attended the Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell, but served on that school's faculty; the army's colleges and schools developed a generation of sophisticated leaders for the future. Across all the services, too, a broader cultural framework of serious professional reading and thinking encouraged the careers of the best officers. When General George Marshall commented that one could not understand strategy unless one had read Thucydides, he reflected the educational ethos of an entire generation of American military professionals.

And these educational institutions were not just repositories for book learning. The Naval War College played a crucial role in the development of carrier aviation. The Infantry School at Fort Benning, under Marshall's leadership, identified many of the best in the army and attracted them to its faculty. The marine schools at Quantico helped to develop the amphibious concepts and doctrine without which the Pacific campaigns would have been impossible.

When the Second World War was over, this educated military elite returned home filled with praise for the part that their education had played in preparing them for the trials of war. Admiral Chester William Nimitz wrote: "I credit the Naval War College for such success [as] I achieved in strategy and tactics during the war." For his last assignment before retirement, Spruance returned by choice to become president of the Naval War College, while Dwight D. Eisenhower founded the National War College, which began its life with luminaries like George Kennan on its faculty and brigadier generals among its student body.
By the early 1960s, however, that cultural framework had dramatically changed. The faculties of the war and staff colleges had become repositories for officers whose careers were over. It was now the kiss of death for an officer to receive an assignment to teach on the faculty of any school. In the U.S. Navy, it had become fashionable for officers to be selected for senior service school but not to attend. In fact, the service cultures have retained a solid belief, through to the present day, that assignment to teach in any senior school is anything but career enhancing.

It was not just in their attitude toward professional military education that service cultures changed so radically in the early part of the Cold War. There was also a decline of intellectual seriousness. General William Westmoreland's memoirs reflect well this latter shift: "Beside my bed I kept . . . several books: a bible; a French Grammar; Mao Tse-tung's little red book on guerrilla warfare; The Centurions, a novel about the French fight with the Vietminh; and several works by Dr. Bernard Fall, who wrote authoritatively on the French experience in Indochina. . . . I was usually too tired in late evening to give the books more than occasional attention." The general was, of course, a man of his word: The Centurions is, after its first chapters, about the war in Algeria.
How had this change come about? Largely it was the result of the emerging leadership in the 1950s and early 1960s having gone to war in 1941 as first lieutenants and junior captains with no exposure to professional military education. By 1945 these officers were colonels (or navy captains) and in some cases brigadier generals (or rear admirals). Their attitude seems to have been that since they had not needed professional military education to be successful both on the battlefield and in their careers, such an education could not be all that important.

The results of this cultural change show clearly in a comparison of the 1954 and 1965 decisions concerning whether to intervene in Indochina. In the earlier case, the thoughtful warnings of Generals Matthew Ridgway and James Gavin--that the political and strategic gains of intervention, as well as the uncertainties of the situation, were not worth the costs that the United States would incur--persuaded President Eisenhower not to take the dangerous path of supporting the French as they went down to defeat at Dien Bien Phu. And, of course, Eisenhower himself was a well educated military professional who knew how to listen to Ridgway and Gavin. Barely a decade later, however, the leadership of the American military--now a different generation--discussed the question of intervention in Southeast Asia exclusively in operational and tactical terms. The larger political and strategic framework, which a real education would have supplied, had simply disappeared from sight.

By the mid-1960s, too, the American military culture had been fundamentally corrupted by the dominating personality of Robert Strange McNamara and his approach to national security policy as Secretary of Defense. McNamara's expertise as a number cruncher had pushed him to the presidency of Ford Motor Company, and he brought the current methods of American business, a cost-accounting mentality and a rigid engineering view of the world, to the business of managing the Defense Department. In his astonishing memoirs--astonishing in that they display virtually no understanding of what their author had done to the American military in the 1960s--McNamara claims that "the military tried to gauge its progress [in Vietnam] with quantitative measurements such as enemy casualties (which became infamous as body counts), weapons seized, prisoners taken, sorties flown, and so on." But, of course, it was precisely such statistical, quantitative measures of efficiency that McNamara himself had demanded that the military use to judge every situation from weapons procurement to the face of battle. And without an educational and cultural compass to guide their response, the professional American military cloned themselves on the Secretary of Defense. By the mid-1960s, on the cusp of the Vietnam intervention, they were out-McNamaring McNamara.

The U.S. military thus addressed the strategic and operational questions raised by Vietnam in terms of quantitative and technological measures: How many weapons captured, how many villages pacified, how many enemies killed, how many ton miles of cargo flown, how many bombs dropped. Nothing else mattered. Both history to the one side and the uncertainties and ambiguities of the battlefield to the other disappeared into a set of technological and game-theoretical assumptions. Thus did the United States march into the Vietnam War with what was, in retrospect, an incredible ignorance. Americans had scant knowledge of the language, culture, traditions, and history of the people on whose behalf the United States was intervening, and, what was worse, neither the civilian leadership at the Pentagon nor the professional military even desired such knowledge. Clearly, the key purposes and functions of professional military education had been essentially abandoned in a cloud of mechanistic hubris.

Underlying this hubris was the general cultural enthusiasm for "modern technology" that characterized the period and that was assumed to be the source of an unprecedented U.S. economic superiority. It followed that technological sophistication spelled superiority in the military sphere as well. And here the American academic community played a role in making the mess in Vietnam. Academic spinnings of game and deterrence theories proliferated like mutant Ebola viruses as prominent professors flocked to Washington in the early 1960s to remake not only American society but its foreign policy as well. The "decisive" technology was the computer, whose application to the social sciences only reinforced the predilection among academics to believe they were fast on the trail of quantitatively guaranteed predictive capabilities with respect to human affairs. Between the Secretary of Defense, his whiz kids, and the supportive academic environment around them, a common theme developed in American defense policymaking that saw American technology and the coming of the computer age as rendering factors such as history, culture, and the traditional understanding of war irrelevant. Never before had Henry Ford's unfortunate remark that "history is bunk" been so popular, or so devastating.

The American military came back deeply scarred from its Vietnam experience. The army and marine officers who had survived two or three tours in Southeast Asia returned deeply suspicious of the predictive universe that Robert McNamara and his senior officers had imposed on the war's conduct. Drugs, indiscipline, and bad morale all exacerbated the feeling of malaise that drove a re-examination of the military's culture and values among mid-level and junior officers. From that re-examination the American military managed to overcome the collapse that followed the war. The intellectual ferment that marked the post-Vietnam War period represented a substantial departure from the attitudes that had characterized much of the 1960s. There was an instinctive revulsion against quantitative measurements of efficiency--exchange ratios, body counts, the mechanistic tabulation of data for its own sake. But there was more than that, too.
The changes in America's military culture after Vietnam took time to develop. The army's first cut in 1976 at a new edition of its basic operations manual, FM 100-5, was a regurgitation of the mechanistic, firepower-intensive approach that had dominated the army in Vietnam. But while the senior leadership stuck with the old, the culture of the emerging leaders was embracing a new edition of Clausewitz's On War, edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret in 1975. That translation made Clausewitz accessible for the first time to the generation of officers returning from the wreckage of Vietnam, and they found in his writings an intellectual statement for their deepest belief that war was inherently unpredictable, uncertain, and ambiguous at every level. Indeed, as Alan Beyerchen has emphasized, Clausewitz's continuing relevance is largely due to the fact that he is a profoundly non-linear thinker in a world that is widely, but wrongly, thought to be linear.

It was the Clausewitzian understanding of friction, uncertainty, and chance--gained at such cost in Vietnam--that dominated American military thought in the last decade and a half of the Cold War. American grand strategy sought to turn the competition with the Soviets onto grounds that represented our strengths, not those of our opponents. The "competitive strategies" approach of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment found an audience among the services. And in choosing whether to use military force--that most crucial of political decisions--the Weinberger and Powell doctrines appeared. Many have argued that those doctrines were so restrictive that the United States would not have fought the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the First World War, or even the Second World War according to their lights. Yet, whatever their problems, they reflected a Clausewitzian belief in the primacy of politics in the fighting of a war.

It was not that the emerging leadership rejected technology, computers, or science. Rather, they subordinated those factors to an appreciation of the centrality of the human factor in war. The most impressive monuments to this Clausewitzian project were the basic doctrinal manuals that came out of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in the 1980s. The army's 100-5 operational doctrinal manual of 1986 represented a fundamental revolt against the mechanistic, predictive, and top-down approach of the 1970s iteration. As the manual warns its readers: "Friction--the accumulation of chance errors, unexpected difficulties, and the confusion of battle--will impede both sides. To overcome it, leaders . . . must be prepared to risk commitment without complete information, recognizing that waiting for such information will invariably forfeit the opportunity to act [emphasis added]." General Al Gray, commandant of the Marine Corps, then drew heavily from the army's approach in casting a new basic doctrinal statement, FM-1, for the marines. In a similar vein the various training centers led by the army's National Training Center, but also including the marines' Twenty-Nine Palms, the air force's Red Flag, and the navy's Top Gun programs, represented a substantial and successful effort to grapple with a world in which friction, fog, and chance are dominant factors.

The Gulf War represented the culmination of the Clausewitzian era. In every respect American forces had trained and prepared themselves over the previous decade and a half within a Clausewitzian approach; the army's second-year course at Leavenworth, the School of Advanced Military Science (SAMS), created in 1983 with the enthusiastic support of the army leadership, rested entirely on a Clausewitzian conception of the study of war. The success in the Gulf represented the fundamental payoff for an officer corps that had learned at great cost that the world offers little of the predictive, mechanistic philosophy that so enamored their superiors, political and military, in Vietnam.

In the glow of American success in the Gulf, one heard many echoes of President George Bush's famous comment that "The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula." Certainly in terms of time we are indeed putting Vietnam behind us. We are now thirty-two years past the escalation of 1965; those standing at the outset of the Second World War were only twenty-five years away from the beginning of the Great War, while the U.S. Marines coming ashore at Danang in 1965 were only twenty years distant from the end of the Second World War. By the turn of the century, time will have washed virtually all of the Vietnam experience out of the officer corps of the various services; only very senior generals will have had that experience.

With the passing of the Vietnam War generation, another major shift in the cultural and intellectual framework of the American military is occurring. The Clausewitzian universe is under attack by a new generation with no experience in Vietnam. A leader in this attack is Admiral William Owens, recently the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Owens has made extraordinary claims that: "Technology could enable U.S. military forces in the future to lift the 'fog of war'. . . . Battlefield dominant awareness--the ability to see and understand everything on the battlefield--might be possible.
When you look at areas such as information warfare, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and command and control, you see a system of systems coming together that will allow us to dominate battlefield awareness for years to come. . . . And while some people say there will always be a 'fog of war', I know quite a lot about these programs.

The emerging system of systems promises the capacity to use military force without the same risks as before--it suggests we will dissipate the 'fog of war.'"
Owens is not alone; his views represent a major trend in the culture of the American military. This new Weltanschauung represents in essence a return to the McNamara paradigm, a belief that American technological superiority will allow U.S. forces to achieve quick, easy victories over their opponents with relatively few casualties. The air force is leading the charge toward the technological utopia of "battlespace dominance"; its New World Vistas suggests: "The power of the new information systems will lie in their ability to correlate data automatically and rapidly from many sources to form a complete picture of the operational area, whether it be a battlefield or the site of a mobility operation." But the air force is not alone. In 1995 a senior army general announced to a group of marine officers that "the digitization of the battlefield means the end of Clausewitz." And just recently the army chief of staff has commented that if the U.S. Army had possessed the information technologies available today, the United States might well have prevailed in Vietnam.

These trends have again found a receptive echo in the academic world, not surprisingly among political scientists. This past April the recently retired Admiral Owens collaborated with the dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., on an article that transferred Owens' arguments about battlespace dominance to the world of international affairs: "This information advantage can help deter or defeat traditional military threats at relatively low cost. . . . [It] can strengthen the intellectual link between U.S. foreign policy and military power and offer new ways of maintaining leadership in alliances and ad hoc coalitions. . . . America's emerging military capabilities . . . offer, for example, far greater pre-crisis transparency. If the United States is willing to share this transparency, it will be better able to build opposing coalitions before aggression has occurred. But the effect may be more general, for all nations now operate in an ambiguous world, a context that is not entirely benign or soothing."

The danger in the belief that technology will offer us total battlespace and foreign policy dominance in the next century does not lie in the technology itself. Technology can indeed offer us substantial leverage against future opponents. What is dangerous about the new technocratic view is the same thing that was dangerous about the older version: It is wholly disconnected from what others think, want, and can do. Precisely because we Americans have a long track record of overestimating our technological superiority and underestimating the ability of our opponents to short-circuit our advantages, this is a form of hubris we cannot afford to indulge again. This is also why many of the overtones we hear today about the coming "revolution in military affairs" are so disheartening.
Much of the literature on the "system of systems" as a revolutionary military event emphasizes the removal of friction and ambiguity from the battlespace. At its heart is the presumption that the future revolution in military affairs will be largely technological in nature. History suggests, however, that the three most important elements in virtually all past revolutions in military affairs were not technological in nature, but rather conceptual, doctrinal, and intellectual. Those military institutions in the 1920s and 1930s (the RAF, the U.S. Army Air Corps, and the innovators in the British army) that attempted to leap into the future without reference to what had happened in the past ended up making mistakes that killed thousands of young men to no purpose. The succession of new gadgets notwithstanding, successful innovation in the past worked when it was tied in to a realistic appreciation of what was humanly possible.

Inherent, too, in the anti-Clausewitzian approach is the belief that what military organizations need is more quantifiable data, more "information." A vast array of sensors and computers all tied together will supposedly reduce friction from the military equation to manageable and controllable levels. But the processing of ever more information may as easily clog up military organizations with a flood of indigestible data. Worse, current claims about information dominance miss the essential difference between information and knowledge. We did not need more information at Pearl Harbor, and it is doubtful that we will need more information in the future. What we will need in the next century is a deeper understanding of the political context of war and the very different set of assumptions that our opponents may bring to it. We will require knowledge of foreign languages, cultures, religious beliefs, and above all history--precisely what technocrats ignore because such knowledge cannot be quantified and measured. What matters most in war is what is in the mind of one's adversary, from command post to battlefield point-of-contact. This is a truth well illustrated by a scene from the Gulf War: As a number of U.S. Marine generals stood over a relatively undamaged and well-stocked Iraqi bunker complex that coalition forces had captured with minimum casualties and a large haul of prisoners, one quietly commented: "Thank God the North Vietnamese weren't here."

How can it be that the emerging American military culture is throwing history and all its associated intangibles overboard not thirty years after we paid such a high price for our appreciation of them? The great tragedy of the post-Vietnam War experience of the American military is that its deeper understanding of war was never institutionalized. Despite the instinctive attraction of the Clausewitzian approach for American officers in the post-Vietnam period, there has been no abiding change in the military's cultural attitudes toward education. Teaching duty on the faculties of professional military schools is still not "career enhancing"; the navy still refuses to send a substantial number of its best officers to any school of professional military education; the Army War College, despite an impressive faculty, is an institution where war rarely appears in the curriculum; the army has turned one of its few truly innovative educational experiments of the 1980s, SAMS, into a humdrum planning exercise; the Air War College, after a short period of professional military education, has returned to the golf course; and finally, the National War College remains buried within the army's budget, where it simply fails to get the support it needs.

Thus, it is not surprising that we are seeing such a significant change in the military culture away from the Clausewitzian form of the last two decades. What we learned the hard way in Vietnam is being thrown away, with barely a thought for the consequences. Current trends suggest that the new military culture is already preparing our officer corps to repeat the Vietnam War, except that this time, at some point in the twenty-first century, we may lose even more disastrously.

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