James Holmes

The Religious Origins of Western Strategy

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James Holmes

The Religious Origins of Western Strategy

The West’s uneasiness with misdirection might be rooted in Christianity.

The Religious Origins of Western Strategy
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a less-than-holy puzzle for Holy Week. It came to me in church on Palm Sunday. (Sick, I know.) Strategists are forever going the rounds about whether Eastern and Western civilizations have starkly different ways of diplomacy and war. Conventional wisdom says yes. Sun Tzu, that exponent of unorthdoxy, deception, and surprise, is the face of Eastern warfare. Take that, barbarian! Clausewitz, by contrast, exhorts commanders to concentrate force at a single point of impact, pummeling enemies into submission. Carl the Great gives Western warfare its modus operandi. Right?

Sort of. Your humble scribe submits that a difference of degree rather than kind separates Oriental from Occidental martial traditions. It is indubitably true that the Eastern way of combat prizes indirection, deception, and surprise. Yet Sun Tzu sounds mighty Clausewitzian when he urges the general to strike suddenly and decisively, like a bird-of-prey making a snack of some lesser but tasty creature. And for their part, Westerners aren’t just about hammering away at one another in contests of brute, guileless strength. Historian John Hale makes much of Odysseus, who embodies a subculture of cunning and craft – mêtis, to use the Greek word – within Western warmaking.

Nonetheless, the Western canon clearly frowns on strategies of indirection, even if it doesn’t proscribe them entirely. That could make a difference in the minds of decisionmakers. Why? No less a personage than Pope Francis hints at an answer. The pontiff reminds the faithful that evil still walks among us, and that Satan is a tempter. A whiff of impropriety clings to methods associated with Satan here in the lands formerly known as Christendom, a.k.a. the West.

King’s College scholar Lawrence Freedman devotes an entire chapter of his masterwork – titled Strategy, oddly enough – to Satan’s strategy in Milton’s Divine Comedy. The fallen angel and his confederates first try Clausewitzian methods, venturing a force-on-force engagement with God’s army. Good luck with that. The demons essay such tactics as artillery fusillades, to little avail. There was a stigma to battlefield gunnery in Milton’s day, much as unconventional weapons are in disrepute today. As a former naval artilleryman, I resolutely protest having my profession portrayed as satanic!

Unable to defeat God’s legions through direct action, Satan resorts to a classic strategy of the weaker combatant. He’s the original insurgent, deploying all manner of stratagems to seduce fallible human beings. Subtlety and trickery are the demons’ watchwords. That’s the conceit behind C. S. Lewis’s amusing classic The Screwtape Letters, which recounts how senior devil Screwtape schools junior tempter Wormwood on the best techniques for thwarting the Almighty’s will.

The devils strike indirectly at the enemy’s center of gravity – “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends,” according to Clausewitz. That means human frailty and vice, our soft spots. In so doing Satan’s minions beguile rather than strongarm allies into the infernal host. Indeed, they don’t so much win the hearts and minds of the people as lure them into sin. They win allegiance by appealing to the baser angels of human nature. Even coaxing mortals to take a neutral position between Heaven and Hell could be a win for Satan. It balks God’s strategy through indirect action, while keeping a sizable segment of humanity in play for denizens of the underworld.

The supposedly Eastern way of war, then, looks satanic and thus wicked to Western eyes – discouraging statesmen and commanders from employing the unorthodox techniques Sun Tzu extols. Gentlemen, it seems, do not trick one another.

This is all speculative, needless to say. But it does stand to reason that religious sentiments encoded in Western strategic DNA would help mold Western strategic reflexes, and thus tactical. operational, and strategic conduct. The question now is: will the devilish taint persist? Or will a less religious West – a West in which fewer and fewer believe in an overlord of the underworld – will converge with the East on matters martial and political.

Over time, maybe. More symmetrical methods could give rise to a false and tricksy strategic environment – an environment of which Milton’s Satan would be proud.