Sinking the Next-13-Navies Fallacy

Stephen D Doyle II/Flickr

This article was originally published July 10 2014 by War on the Rocks.

The war against naval factoids is a quagmire! A primary theater in this whack-a-mole struggle is the notion that America’s navy is “stronger” than the next X navies, and thus, we should rest easy about our republic’s strategic position in Eurasia. The usual figure given for X is 13, although a reputable commentator recently inflated it to 16. The latest purveyor of this claim is David Axe, the normally reliable proprietor of War Is Boring. On Tuesday, Axe contended, “By some measures, the U.S. Navy maintains a 13-navy standard. In other words, it can deploy as much combat power as the next 13 largest fleets combined.”

The Not-So-Obvious Breakdown of the Dominant Rationalist View of Hard Power (Part 5/8)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As we discussed yesterday, the rationalists’ way of characterizing war, when subsequently mixed with Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare, became synonymous in the minds of many observers with organized violence itself.  The mass bloodletting and sheer entropy experienced by millions in World Wars I & II only reinforced the seeming “rightness” of seeing hard power in this way.  One reason for this was that the Allies won – victory, after all, is seldom a spur for soul-searching innovation or doctrinal doubt.  Second, the rationalists’ way of “packaging” war had enjoyed a long 130-year run.  Given its long tenure, it was possible to forget that the Western Way of War had perhaps undergone nine major transformations (often referred to as “paradigm shifts”) since the 15th century, as the following figure shows.  (Of the nine possible shifts, a strong argument can be made that the last four were mutually complementary and reinforced, rather than questioned, the rationalist critique of war popularized by Jomini and his Enlightenment Era predecessors.)

The Triumph of the Rationalists (Part 4/8)

Napoleon Bonaparte. Image: istock

We ended yesterday’s blog with a question that the title of today’s entry answers. The reason for this is actually relatively straight forward. By the time of Clausewitz’s premature death in 1831, Western military thinkers had essentially established the framework for subsequent debate. They identified themselves, in other words, with one of two paradigms of war – they were either prescriptive, as were the 18th century rationalists we’ve previously discussed, or they were non-prescriptive, as were the two varieties of military romantics we discussed yesterday. So, which school of thought would come to dominate the Anglo-European discourse on hard power over the next 150 years? Frankly, it didn’t take too long for the answer to appear.

Let’s remember that the Napoleonic system lashed up state policy and military activity together. This was possible because Napoleon was both head of state and the supreme military commander of France. Jomini, the greatest of the rationalists we’ve discussed, did not think the above arrangement was abnormal or, more precisely, a symptom of a particular political time and place. Instead, when he began his self-appointed quest to identify war’s eternal truths, he saw in Napoleon the unquestioned, last-stop source of these elusive truths. Jomini, in other words, did not see Napoleonic warfare for what it was – a type of war – and instead came to confuse it with war itself. And at the heart of Napoleonic warfare there indeed seemed to be a universal truth – i.e., if you expect to use hard power effectively to fulfill your foreign policy goals, you will at some point have to destroy or seriously incapacitate your opponents’ armies. Napoleon’s example was so conceptually all-encompassing that both Jomini and Clausewitz believed in what appeared to be this inescapable truth. Jomini, however, garnished it with other easily digestible rules (half-disguised as mere principles) and assorted lists. There was no Teutonic obscurity in his Art of War, as there was in the romantic ruminations of Scharnhorst, Clausewitz and eventually Moltke the Elder. Indeed, there were prescriptions to be had and if you followed them properly success would be yours, or so Jomini argued again and again.

Hard Power and the “Irrational” Approach of Clausewitz and the Germans (Part 3/8)

Photo: drakegoodman/flickr

The tidy, war-can-be-domesticated rationalists we looked at yesterday inevitably provoked a reaction. That it coincided with the great Romantic Rebellion in early 19th century Europe was no accident. That the reaction was largely German was no accident either, as the formidable (and seminal) Prussian general, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, clearly illustrated.

Out went geometry, out went science, and out went firm rules. Prussia’s antidote to Napoleon first repudiated the neoclassical characterization of war as a comprehensible part of a clockwork universe. Instead, Scharnhorst believed war was a blind, demonic force. It was changeable, imponderable and immeasurable. It roiled with brutal and spiritual energy, and therefore involved a free play of opaque spiritual forces that defied rigid, one-sided tick boxes. And since no abstract formula could capture war’s sheer diversity, one could not delimit it in exclusively mathematical (i.e., mechanical) terms.

If that wasn’t enough, Scharnhorst then dismissed the history-has-continuities arguments of the rationalists. He thought that Machiavelli and his disciples were wrong – the history of war was not homogenous and the past did not necessarily repeat itself. Instead, each epoch of armed violence was unique. It involved, as Clausewitz would note, an interplay of “possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad” that worked against historical cycles or patterns. Therefore, those who tried to foist personal or absolute templates on the past were doomed to defeat. (It was futile, Clausewitz argued in the late 1820s, for 19th century warriors to examine prior wars for hoary lessons learned. The similarities between past and present, he continued, did not extend beyond the War of the Austrian Succession [1740-1748]. Prior to that historical point, there were no fixed military dictums that one could identify, catalog, and adapt to the present or future, or so Scharnhorst’s disciple argued.)

Hard Power and the “Rational” Approach of Enlightenment Era Thinkers (Part 2/8)

Photo: David Ian Roberts/flickr

As we discussed yesterday, Raimondo Montecuccoli, along with contemporary military engineers like Sébastien Vauban and Blaise de Pagan, provided a significant link between the broadly prescriptive military theorists that preceded them and the rigid mechanical-mathematical treatments of hard power that subsequently appeared during the Enlightenment.  The military rationalists of that era, including Frederick the Great, Henry Lloyd, Heinrich von Bülow, Antoine-Henri Jomini, and a collection of lesser lights that went by the collective (and telling) name of the Auteurs Dogmatiques all embraced the linear thinking of the New Physics or “Natural Philosophy” of the 18th century.  (The latter group included the now largely forgotten Marquise de Santa Cruz, the Marquise de Feuquières, Marshal Puységur and other creatures very much of their time.)

They categorically rejected the spit-into-the-wind thinking of Marshal Maurice de Saxe, who famously characterized war as “a science so obscure and imperfect” that “custom and prejudice, confirmed by ignorance, were its only foundations and support.” (My translation.)   Instead, the soldier-thinkers of the Enlightenment embraced the intelligible, mathematical logic of Isaac Newton and his disciples.  That Newton wasn’t actually as irremediably linear and mechanistic as they believed was beside the point.  These men in arms were convinced that reality was “out there.”