James Holmes

Strategy and the Tyranny of Maxims

Military strategists need the intellectual toolkits to use bumper-sticker precepts knowledgeably and nimbly.

Strategy and the Tyranny of Maxims
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A coda to our running series on how to mold maritime strategists. Strategic thought is a habit of mind as much as a body of knowledge. Those who reach for the strategic canon reflexively in times of stress stand the best chance of withstanding the seductions of military maxims. That’s important for keeping bureaucratic institutions supple.

You might call a maxim a bumper sticker that communicates a complex idea or doctrine to certain audiences. It explains how we do things here in simple terms. Specific examples? Well, never divide the fleet! is a maxim that supposedly animates the U.S. Navy. It reminds commanders to concentrate superior might at the decisive place and time.

Or, the people are the center of gravity, win the hearts and minds, and clear, hold, and build are maxims governing counterinsurgent endeavors. Such operations involve not just pummeling enemies but winning the acquiescence if not the allegiance of ordinary people. Maxims do yeoman service reminding practitioners of the dual nature of counterinsurgent warfare.

Such shorthand beguiles, and understandably so. A set of maxims shared among the members of an organization simplifies operations under both routine and stressful circumstances. Think about it. Time grows short, the stakes rise, options narrow, and the pressure to act wisely mounts when crisis looms. You have to discern the right course of action on the fly. Repercussions are swift, certain, and painful if you decide wrong.

Maxims accelerate the decision cycle while easing the strains inherent in such times. They’re a labor-saving device. That explains their allure.

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Simplifying problems, then, is a must. You can’t revisit first principles every time you need to make a decision, reinventing the wisdom of a Clausewitz or a Thucydides. Great thinkers compose and revise their works at leisure, insulated from the pressures of the day. Practitioners seldom enjoy the luxury of leisurely contemplation. They must act. (That’s why soccer games matching teams of philosophers tend to be boring affairs). If commanders improvised their own strategic theories every time the need arose, they would act on hastily conceived rough drafts rather than polished ideas. Defeat and disaster would be apt to follow.

So again, some method of reducing complexity is inescapable. The trouble comes when a bumper sticker is all there is to military thought. Slogans are easy to repeat and remember, whereas reasoning about complex facts and dynamics is hard and time-consuming. That’s why bumper stickers are effective. Yet constant repetition combined with forgetfulness about the larger context can deaden the mind, depriving practitioners of the mental agility they need to thrive amid change and uncertainty. Maxims degenerate into dogma, quelling questioning and independent thought.

Consider never divide the fleet, a precept attributed to Mahan. Mahan never wrote this. That’s a worrisome sign in itself. The maxim does paraphrase a Mahanian idea, namely that no navy should split up into contingents that are at once weaker than likely opponents and scattered too far from one another to merge into an overpowering force for combat. Be stronger than the enemy when and where it matters: that’s the commonsense idea behind the maxim. Few would dispute it.

But Mahan was cautioning against fragmenting a navy strategically, into separate fleets that might suffer disastrous defeat before friendly forces could come to the rescue. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, when the Imperial Japanese Navy eviscerated the Russian Navy piecemeal, was one cautionary tale for Mahan. Better to leave one zone of interest uncovered altogether, and combine the fleet elsewhere on the map, than disperse assets all over the map in a vain effort to manage all contingencies. Partitioning its navy into Far East, Baltic, and Black Sea fleets was St. Petersburg’s mistake. For Mahan, dividing the U.S. Navy between Atlantic and Pacific fleets risked a similar debacle. Such a debacle is what he hoped to forestall.

Sage counsel, n’est-ce pas? Taken literally, though, never divide the fleet proscribes even tactical dispersal of the navy. That’s nonsense, especially in peacetime. Policing the sea demands that assets — small groups of ships, or even individual units — take station where needed most. Deploying the entire U.S. Navy to the Gulf of Aden for counterpiracy duty, for instance, would be foolish on its face. Yet that’s what the maxim demands if mariners forget the strategic logic underlying it. It forbids commanders to send detachments hither and yon, and it does so in a misguided effort to purge risk from naval enterprises.

Perversely, moreover, this maxim discredits Mahan in the eyes of seafarers, further impoverishing strategic thought among them. There’s more to nautical affairs than combat. Who but a silly old relic would keep the fleet together at all times? What busy seaman bothers deciphering Mahan’s dense Victorian prose if such antiquarian ideas are all he has to offer?

You get the idea. Well-educated, skeptical strategic thinkers are less susceptible to bowdlerized concepts. Corbett took his Royal Navy to task for orthodox concepts such as the enemy’s coast is our frontier and seek out and destroy the enemy fleet at the outset of war. He joked that waging war by such one-liners was like singing “Rule Britannia” to plan a campaign. Original thought, insists Corbett, is at a premium for strategists.

In his Strategy in the Missile Age, similarly, Bernard Brodie ascribes the course of World War I in large measure to military maxims. Brodie takes European statesmen and commanders to task for succumbing to a tyranny of maxims. Mistaking Clausewitz’s writings for advocacy of untrammeled violence was one sin. The cult of the offensive — the belief that sufficiently gallant troops could overcome fixed fortifications defended by machine and artillery — was another.

Confronted with a mindbogglingly bloody conflict on the Western Front, soldiers went back, again and again, to a playbook that was out of step with reality. They were prisoners of military maxims. Brodie suggests that lists of “principles of war” — such as MOOSEMUSS, the acronym for mass, offensive, surprise, and so forth — likewise endanger forces overseen by unimaginative commanders. Can you really reduce a seesaw undertaking like warfare to a checklist? Nope. A maxim may provide a starting point for wisdom. Seldom if ever will it provide the endpoint.

Nor, incidentally, would the Naval Diplomat exempt non-military professions from this critique. Business folk, for instance, constantly mouth the faddish slogan of the day. Win-win solutions, Six Sigma process improvement … stop the madness!! Or, academics tout lifelong learning, inveigh against the sage on the stage, and extol the virtues of diversity. Politicians … fuggedaboutit. Like military maxims, none of these concepts is intrinsically bad. But as Orwell reminds us, worthy concepts repeated endlessly and cavalierly can grip an institution at the same time they lose all meaning.

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That can render a body of fine minds dull, unimaginative, behind changing times — and unable to catch up. A bad situation all around. So to make strategists, let’s equip the rising generation of commanders with maxims. And let’s fill their intellectual toolkits with the tools to use bumper-sticker precepts knowledgeably and nimbly.

Freethinkers of the profession of arms, unite!