James Holmes

George Orwell: Strategic Genius?

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James Holmes

George Orwell: Strategic Genius?

Clausewitz, Sun Tzu and…George Orwell? The Naval Diplomat explains.

Cage match!! Revisiting your intellectual heroes is a bracing way to get psyched up for a new term. (We start off with our Senior Level Course today, hobnobbing with the likes of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Liddell Hart.) Better yet when your heroes tangle — indirectly, since few of them were contemporaries — over grave matters like diplomacy and war. Great insights come from combat between great minds.

Speaking of which, I often times inflict George Orwell on my senior seminars. I keep a copy of his collected essays around the house. You can flip open a random volume to a random page and be assured of a few minutes’ pleasurable reading about some arcane topic. Though not among the standard pantheon of strategic theorists, Orwell offers acerbic commentary on good writing, the best and worst types of political rule, and such historical events as the Spanish Civil War. That makes him a worthy addition to any course on the ups and downs societies undergo over big stretches of time. That’s what our senior course is all about.

Orwell struck a Socratic note in a 1943 As I Please essay that makes a natural icebreaker for the first seminar meeting. Socrates famously proclaimed that he knew nothing except the fact of his ignorance. Jarring classical Athenians out of their complacency — compelling them to question their basic assumptions about the good life — was his self-appointed mission in life.

Similarly, Orwell questioned his own farsightedness as a commentator on martial affairs. “One way of feeling infallible is not to keep a diary,” he observed wryly, and his prognostications from 1940-1941 proved it. Yet

“…I was not so wrong as the Military Experts. Experts of various schools were telling us in 1939 that the Maginot Line was impregnable, and that the Russo-German Pact had put an end to Hitler’s eastwards expansion; in early 1940 they were telling us that the days of tank warfare were over; in mid 1940 they were telling us that the Germans would invade Britain forthwith; in mid 1941 that the Red army would fold up in six weeks; in December 1941, that Japan would collapse after ninety days; in July 1942, that Egypt was lost and so on, more or less indefinitely.”

“Where now,” he asked rhetorically, “are the men who told us those things? Still on the job, drawing fat salaries. Instead of the unsinkable battleship we have the unsinkable Military Expert….” Such counsel of humility is worthwhile for any group of aspiring military experts. Complacency kills.

And yet. Reviewing Orwell’s list of military experts’ foibles — and assuming he characterized these unnamed pundits’ views fairly — reveals a series of reasonable analyses that happened to go awry. In each case linear projections of the past into the future collided headlong with stubborn human will, and with the unpredictable dynamics generated by an interactive clash of wills. The Maginot Line, for instance, did verge on impregnable; there’s a reason German armies went around it. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact did appear to settle the frontier between Germany and the Soviet Union, at Polish expense. The British, Soviets, and Japanese held out against forbidding odds when strictly applying cost/benefit logic may have induced them to quit.

Competitive endeavors, then, have a way of defying the most acute expert prognoses. Small wonder Clausewitz urges statesmen and commanders to employ the rational cost/benefit calculus to wage war … then spends so much of his treatise On War explaining why war will resist their efforts to transact business by passionless algorithms. He sketches an early version of complexity theory. Because of the countless factors at work — not least passions like fear and spite — events tend to branch off in all directions. The best makers and executors of policy can do is school their intuition through battlefield experience and close study of history. Modern-day thinkers from Edward Luttwak to Nassim Nicholas Taleb sound similar notes.

Practitioners of military affairs should try to impose linear logic on war, a phenomenon inherently prone to nonlinearity. But they shouldn’t be surprised to be wrong — or to be upbraided by a future Orwell when they are.