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“Although war is contrary to reason, since it is a means of deciding issues by force when discussion fails to produce an agreed solution, the conduct of war must be controlled by reason if its object is to be fulfilled. For —
(1) While fighting is a physical act, its direction is a mental process. The better your strategy, the easier you will gain the upper hand, and the less it will cost you.
(2) Conversely, the more strength you waste the more you increase the risk of the scales of war turning against you ; and even if you succeed in winning the victory, the less strength you will have to profit by the peace.
(3) The more brutal your methods the more bitter you will make your opponents, with the natural result of hardening the resistance you are trying to over-come ; thus the more evenly the two sides are matched the wiser it will be to avoid extremes of violence which tend to consolidate the enemy's troops and behind their leaders.
(4) These calculations extend further, The more intent you appear to impose a peace entirely of your own choosing, by conquest, the stiffer the obstacle will raise in your path.
(5) Furthermore, if and when you reach your military goal, the more you ask of the defeated side the more trouble you will have, and the more cause you will provide for an ultimate attempt to reverse the settlement achieved by the war.
Force is a vicious circle, or rather, a spiral unless its application is controlled by the more carefully reasoned calculation. Thus war, which begins by denying reason, comes to vindicate it throughout all phases of the struggle.
The fighting instinct is necessary to success in the battlefield although even here the combatant who can keep a cool head has an advantage over the man who 'sees red' but should always be ridden on a tight rein. The statesman who gives that instinct its head loses his own ; he is not fit to take charge of the fate of a nation.”
-- Captain Sir B.H. Liddell Hart, The Strategy of the Indirect Approach
The British have often been described as having a “stiff upper lip” – stoic, unemotional, rational, enduring… they didn’t like to talk about their feelings too much.
We all know the World War II slogan “Keep calm and carry on” – we often forget that it was written in preparation for the expected Nazi air raid attacks on the British Isles.
The British of the Victorian Era – and B.H. Liddel Hart and Winston Churchill were among the last of the Victorians – they would so often say things that were reasonable, sound, and stoic… but often the very simplicity and calm of their words would serve to make audiences forget the abject horror and insanity they were taking aim against.
Captain Liddell Hart writes,
“While fighting is a physical act, its direction is a mental process. The better your strategy, the easier you will gain the upper hand, and the less it will cost you.”
That seems reasonable, of course. It’s calm, simple, understated.
But something is lost in translation to our modern and less-stoic ears – Liddell Hart is writing that in response to being a personal participant in one of the stupidest, most brutal, most bloody battles of all time. He was on the front lines at the 1916 Battle of the Somme for just under a month before being hit with poison gas.
The majority of his battalion became casualties – indeed, at the Somme, there were 624,000 Allied casualties, of them 146,000 killed in action. Very little was accomplished.
“The better your strategy, the easier you will gain the upper hand, and the less it will cost you” – indeed.
"Infantry on both sides served as compressed cannon-fodder for artillery consumption." – Liddell Hart, on the later phases of the Somme Offensive
The difference between taking an attrition approach or a maneuver approach – both in warfare, and using the military concept as a metaphor for general life – is a deceptively simple concept.
Attrition is wearing down an opponent or a challenge through sheer and repeated force. “Charging the machine guns” is one of those unpleasant idioms we got from World War I; that’s attrition warfare.
Maneuver warfare is slightly less straightforward – it involves assessing critical points in the enemy and reaching those at the lowest possible cost using speed, surprise, and innovation. The general idea is go around the most heavily defended points of the enemy and strike as what’s vulnerable – if successful, this comes at much lower cost and much greater efficiency.
The theory is straightforward. Go around the machine guns instead of charging the machine guns. The practice is much harder, for two reasons –
First, the concept seems unnatural and unintuitive to humans. Overwhelmingly, the first instinct and response of humans to problems seems to be to charge them head on.
Second, it’s often very straightforward how to fight along established lines and conventions, whereas it’s almost always non-obvious – in practice – how to successfully maneuver around strong points effectively.
This week, we’ll primarily define the concepts, educate ourselves about the terminology, and explore the first problem – the concept seems unnatural.
“More and more clearly has the fact emerged that a direct approach to one's mental object, or physical objective, along the 'line of natural expectation' for the opponent, has ever tended to, and usually produced negative results.”
-- Liddell Hart, The Strategy of the Indirect Approach
I’m consistently surprised how little people know about the First World War – it’s one of the most definitive and important events in all of history. The infinitely better-known World War II is its direct descendent, but – no World War I, no World War II. No World War I, no Nazi Germany and no Soviet Union.
Even once the damn thing broke out, if it had been fought to a standstill and then ended, a Concert of Europe type situation might have emerged instead of the utter insanity that reigned over the subsequent 40-80 years.
But – we don’t know much about World War I. We don’t know much about The Somme or Passchendale or Verdun or the Brusilov Offensive. Fine. We’ll turn to more familiar examples.
Most Americans know far more about the American Civil War than about World War I – we’ll start by looking at Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.
“General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” – Confederate General James Longstreet to Robert E. Lee
The Battle of Gettysburg illustrates well the flaw in human nature. The Confederacy was both winning impressive individual battles at times, but also gradually losing the war due to the Union’s advantages in industry and manpower.
The first two days at Gettysburg, Confederate forces did well tactically and locally at the battle, but Union forces were able to dig into strong defensive positions.
Robert E. Lee, probably fraying mentally under some stress and strain, decided that the battle must be won and ordered the fateful assaults on the well-defended positions. General Longstreet – one of the best Confederate Generals, in my estimation – objected to it. Longstreet wrote later –
“[Lee] rode over after sunrise and gave his orders. His plan was to assault the enemy's left centre by a column to be composed of McLaws's and Hood's divisions reinforced by Pickett's brigades. I thought that it would not do; that the point had been fully tested the day before, by more men, when all were fresh; that the enemy was there looking for us, as we heard him during the night putting up his defences […] Opinion was then expressed that the fifteen thousand men who could make successful assault over that field had never been arrayed for battle; but [Lee] was impatient of listening, and tired of talking, and nothing was left but to proceed.”
Confederate forces were defeated with over a 50% casualty rate, the Confederate forces never again undertook major offensive operations in the North for the two remaining years of the war.
Most of the errors of attrition warfare can be attributed to two in-built flaws typical to humans – fixation and sunk cost effects.
Fixation is becoming obsessed with a particular thing. In Lee’s case, he believed he was close to a victory at Gettysburg (by the third day, he wasn’t) and that he needed a victory there (he didn’t). He thus turned a minor loss into a very bad loss.
The Romans had their greatest military disaster at the Battle of Cannae, under the Consul Terrentius Varro. The Carthaginian Hannibal had invaded Rome in a maneuver approach of crossing the Alps – thought impossible prior to him doing it – landing in undefended positions north of Rome, and laying terrible ambushes at the Trebia River and Lake Trasimene.
Varro believed he needed to win now, and foolishly gave battle at Cannae. The entire Roman forces were destroyed. Indeed, Rome would likely have fallen, except for the emergence of Fabius Maximus, with his famous policy of delaying and refusing direct battle to Hannibal, and Scipio Africanus, who went around Hannibal’s main forces and assaulted lesser-defended Carthaginian positions in Spain before invading North Africa – which eventually forced Hannibal’s recall from Italy.
Direct battle in attrition-style had led to well over 100,000 casualties for the Romans at Trebia, Tresimene, and Cannae – an even more staggering number considering the pre-modern times – before they largely abandoned direct assaults.
At Cannae, Varro believed he had to make battle, which was not true. The Romans had to survive the war, but did not have to fight on that particular ground against Hannibal. Fixation.
Sunk costs magnify the effects – both the Allied naval assault and amphibious landings at Gallipoli had a chance to succeed when they were launched with speed and surprise, but after the Ottoman Turks had defended the initial assaults, the Allies and British in particular became very concerned about “prestige” – thus they kept reinforcing an objectively terrible position with more and more troops, slowly pouring units into Gallipoli in terrible unsanitary positions, overlooked by well-defended Turkish positions. Eventually, they left Gallipoli not with a minor defeat, but with one of the worst defeats in British history.
In all of these wars, there were contrary examples of successes. For Rome, Scipio Africanus ignored Hannibal entirely and focused on weaker commanders in Carthage’s power base in Spain, and then invaded North Africa and launched some very effective surprise raids against Carthage. The Romans never beat Hannibal in the field in Italy, but he was recalled and had to leave Italy by maneuvering around his local superiority.
In the American Civil War, perhaps no commander broke the deadlock more than General William Tecumseh Sherman. In 1864, Sherman invaded Georgia and kept refusing battle to Confederate forces until reaching Atlanta, besieging it, and burning it. He then engaged in his famous “march to the sea” – adopting tactics similar to Napoleon with his soldiers running light and fast, they lived on the land and burned as many of the lightly Confederate supplies and raw materials as they could come upon, destroyed railroads and communications, and otherwise inflicted a great amount of damage on the Confederate war cause without any brutal attrition-style battles like Gettysburg.
Even while the Gallipoli campaign was resulting in immense damage to Allied forces in World War I, Lawrence of Arabia was laying the diplomatic and strategic groundwork for the Arab Revolt behind Ottoman lines. The Arab Revolt happened behind the Ottoman lines and – once again – focused on weak points and easily taken targets, approaching cities from the desert side (which was poorly defended because it was thought impassible) instead of the well-defended amphibious landing points, and did immense damage to the Ottoman war effort at nowhere the cost of the battles of Gallipoli and the Western front.
You might do well to read Liddell Hart – Scipio Africanus is one of the greatest military biographies I’ve read; The Strategy of the Indirect Approach and Why We Don’t Learn From History are excellent as well.
We’ll explore concepts of evolving maneuver warfare next week and go deeper into the Western Front of World War I in the process, but as to cultivating celerity into your life, both fixation and sunk cost effects are certainly enemies.
The obvious thing to do in most situations is the obvious thing – but the obvious thing is also often the most expensive in terms of material resources and psychology. The victories in such situations are the most expensive and exhausting; we’ve known that since Pyrrhus of Epirus gave rise to the term Pyrrhic victory – after a bloody attrition battle at Asculum, Pyrrhus rebuked a congratulations he received –
“If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”
Think on this some – I do sincerely believe that the human tendency is to attrition-away at problems, both in military operations and in everyday life. The temptation is to see a large problem and go right after it, fixating on it, and thus being denied the potential to see more creative and less expensive ways around and through the problem.
Sunk cost effects multiply the problems – once failure starts to set in, human nature is often to throw more and more force after it, turning small defeats into outright catastrophes.
Both of these, of course, are devastating to celerity – speed is not achieved by focusing on an intractable and brutally expensive problem and attritioning away at it forever; it’s achieved by spotting more cost-effective and innovative ways around problems to get at gains.
We’ll focus more on developing maneuver-type tactics next week; for this week, meditate some on fixation and sunk costs if you will – maneuver being superior to attrition is very simple on paper, deceptively simple even, but the human mind is not built to naturally seek it – if anything, just the opposite.

We'll continue with the development of maneuver next week. Until then, yours,

Sebastian Marshall

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