Nearly every book about the Vietnam War written in the last twenty years includes the following exchange between Harry Summers, an Army colonel, and one of his counterparts in the North Vietnamese Army. "You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield," Summers said. The North Vietnamese colonel tartly replied, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."
The fact that the United States won all the battles it fought, but still lost the Vietnam War, was the inspiration for Summers to write On Strategy, a Clausewitzian critique of US strategy in the war. This observation about the Vietnam War is also an inspirational point for starting a discussion of the levels of strategy. As in Vietnam, what we're doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan may be successful at one level, but a complete disaster at the higher levels--the ones that ultimately determine whether we win or lose.
There's a lot about Summers' analysis that's flawed (for example, he got Clausewitz's notion of friction all wrong). It's a good book, but there's a better one for the topic at hand: Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace by Edward Luttwak, A must-read books for anyone interested in the subject of this blog. Strategy is a distillation of many classic ideas about military strategy, and Luttwak mixes in some very thought-provoking observations of his own.
This subject deserves a lot of explanation, but I don't want to write one overlong post about it. Instead, I'll break the discussion into one level per post. That approach fits the blog medium better than a mega-post, and I'll actually get the whole thing written faster and better in small chunks. So stay tuned, Dear Reader, for this series of critical postings. Believe me, once you digest these concepts, you'll never look at warfare the same way again.
The levels of strategy are...
- Grand strategic.
I'll explain each in turn, and I'll provide a running series of examples to illustrate them. Since the Chinese civil war provides an excellent overall example, I'll wrap up things up with that case study.
For now, keep in mind the following point: the difference between victory and defeat often turns on whether efforts at one level actually contribute to the other levels. The success story of the blitzkrieg wasn't just a story of fine German engineering, manifested in the panzers that slashed through Poland, the Low Countries, and France. The blitzkrieg depended not only on the tank, but also how it fit into a combined arms approach that linked armor, infantry, and air power through radio communications. In the first two years of the Russo-German conflict, the Wehrmacht actually faced an enemy with better tanks. Aficianados of WWII armor will tell you that the Soviet T-34 was easily superior to the German PzKW III and IV, as measured by firepower, speed, and protection. However, the Germans fought better with their tanks than the Soviets did, which made it possible for the Wehrmacht to stop just short of Moscow in 1941, and just short of the Volga in 1942.
Every science starts with classification. Putting names to things, identifying the differences among them, is a critical exercise whether you're a student of entymology, astronomy, or military history. Since classification makes the overall picture of what you're studying more clear, it's often the catalyst for inspiration. Classifying the differences among birds in the Galapagos Islands gave Darwin the mental nudge the theory of evolution. Classifying the different species of military strategy can also inspire Big Thoughts, as we'll see.
If you've read the earlier posts on theory and practice, you've seen that I don't have much patience with the notion that Do something! is a good guide to action. Nothing we'll discuss on this blog will put a stake through the heart of that great fallacy than this discussion of the levels of strategy. Do something! is meaningless, once you see that doing a fantastic job at one level of strategy may be irrelevant to the ones that ultimately decide victory or defeat. In fact, success victory at one level can blind you to the real problems brewing at other levels, as the Vietnam example illustrates. It's natural for people to look for signs of hope when American soldiers are dying, but the signs may be pointing in the wrong direction.
US and allied forces did a stellar job invading Iraq. The list of what made this victory possible at the theater level of strategy is long and familiar: superior equipment, outstanding training and organization, experience fighting the Iraqi army in Operation Desert Storm...Reading or listening to the news, we've heard the pundits run through this list over and over again.
But what did we win? I hope this discussion of the levels of strategy will help answer that critical question.