A subtle but important strategic dynamic is the initiative. Except under the rarest of circumstances, you’re usually enjoying an enormous advantage when you can control the place, time, and nature of conflict. You want to act, and force the other side to react. The longer you can maintain the initiative, the better. (The rare circumstance, by the way, is the nuclear game of chicken, in which one side deliberately cedes control of the situation to force the other side to blink. See Schelling’s Arms and Influence for details.)
To go back to the blitzkrieg example, the shock of “lightning warfare” had everything to do with Germany’s power to control the initiative at the operational level. Maneuverability, flexibility, and communications made it possible for the Germans—often numerically inferior, even on the attack—to disorient, disrupt, and ultimately defeat their French, Belgian, and Polish opponents. The successes of the early campaigns in North Africa and the Soviet Union also depended on the way blitzkrieg gave the Germans the operational initiative. In both the North African and Russian campaigns, however, the Germans ran out of the resources (men, tanks, fuel, etc.) needed to maintain earlier “tempos” of operations. German losses at Stalingrad and Kursk, therefore, took the initiative out of their hands and placed it into the Soviets’. In North Africa, the supply of fuel, spare parts, and replacements across the Mediterranean was never enough to keep up with the Afrika Korps’ needs. As dazzling as Rommel’s successes were, they weren’t enough to decisively end the North African campaign before time ran out.
In the two types of asymmetric strategy that are constant topics on this blog, guerrilla warfare and terrorism, the initiative is all-important. Wherever guerrillas are fighting, they usually are at a distinct numerical disadvantage. To make matters worse, their supplies are meager, their weapons less advanced, and their access to external forms of support are often smaller. The one key advantage they do have, however, is the ability to hide in the population or in remote locations, wait until an opportune moment, and then carry out a raid, sabotage mission, or other operation designed for some political effect. Sometimes, these are dramatic moments, like the Tet Offensive. Normally, however, each small operation is part of the steady drip, drip, drip that erodes the political and military base of the enemy regime. Given their even smaller numbers, terrorists also depend on their ability to avoid their enemy’s crosshairs, staying in hiding or on the move until the time ripens for a bombing, kidnapping, or other attack. (This is the major reason why, as I’ve discussed earlier, there can’t always be a “ticking bomb” of an imminent terrorist attack about to happen. Terrorists can’t possibly afford the exposure; instead, they normally wait until they’re sure of success—which depends on the survival of the terrorist organization, if not individual suicide bombers.)
Modern guerrilla warfare and terrorism both depend on maintaining the initiative, not just on the battlefield, but in the media. During the 1980s, Reagan Administration officials and their contra allies were constantly upstaged by the surprisingly more media-savvy, camera-friendly Sandinistas. On one key front, American and world public opinion, the Sandinista commandantes like Daniel Ortega, Ernesto Cardenal, and Miguel d’Escoto constantly outflanked their enemies. The initiative in the highly political “war of the flea” sometimes depends on controlling the terms of the political debate inside and outside the country as much as the terms of battle.
Since I was a teen, I’ve been a big aficionado of wargames. I started in junior high school playing the classic Avalon Hill games—Panzerblitz, Squad Leader, The Russian Campaign, and the like. I don’t harbor any illusions that wargames are 100% perfect simulations of warfare—they can’t be. What they can do, however, is highlight important parts of the story of a conflict, just as a narrative history, a political science study, or this blog can shine a light here or there on important points.
One thing I’ve always noticed is how poorly wargames depict the initiative. The classic wargames, with their “you go-I go” heritage of how each player takes his turn, can’t possibly depict the fluid nature of the initiative. Sometimes they can, either in explicit ways, or cleverly implicit ones. Games like Turning Point: Stalingrad and Breakout: Normandy actually have an initiative chit that one side or the other keeps until used. Once you decide to use some special advantage that the initiative confers, such as the option to re-roll a die if you don’t like the result, you hand the chit and its potential advantages to the other player. This game mechanic makes an interesting point, but it isn’t the same as, say, a well-designed simulation of WWII on the Eastern Front, in which you can feel the German initiative slip away as the supply lines grow too long, the partisan attacks too frequent, your own losses too heavy, and the balance of forces tilting too far in the direction of the ever-regenerating Soviet Army.
Still, if you’re not familiar with wargames or military history enough to appreciate the importance of the initiative, watch a good football game for signs of it in operation. During key points in a game, one side clearly has the advantage in an ineffable way. Everything else is the same—the players, the field, the game—but clearly, the team with the initiative is, for the time being, “stealing a march” from the other side. The initiative is powerful enough in the game of football, in which events on the field are tightly constrained by the rules and the referees. In warfare, where there are no such constraints, the ability to pick the time, location, and type of conflict is vastly more important.
In 2003, the Bush Administration had an ambitious strategy for how to re-take the initiative in its theater strategy for the Middle East. Long the source of economic and security headaches, from world oil prices to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the 9/11 attacks heightened the direct threat to US security that also emanated from this fractious, dangerous, but nonetheless vital region. The invasion of Iraq, therefore, was an effort to upset the game board of Middle Eastern politics, upsetting old assumptions, creating new opportunities, and perhaps ending old, intractable problems.
This is the argument that a good friend of mine once made in defense of the Iraq invasion. In theory, I also think the idea had merit. (If only it had been the argument the Bush Administration had made at the time, instead of deliberately misleading the US public about weapons of mass destruction.) Given how critical this blog has been of the Bush Administration, you might be surprised to hear me praise this idea. The Middle East had become the proverbial Gordian knot, and perhaps it was time for an Alexander-like, creatively direct approach to unraveling it. It’s hard to see years of patient diplomacy to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unravel without asking, Have we missed all the options? Is there something we overlooked? Is it time to take bigger risks? It’s annoying to see Saddam Hussein thumb his nose at the United States, continuing to claim (justifiably, I think) a substantial victory merely by surviving. It’s frightening to see radical Islamist movements on the march, more often than not with Saudi Wahabbist support, without being alarmed. Perhaps, then, it was time to seize the initiative.
A bold move, yes, but an incredibly risky one. Risks like these are often worth taking, however. Frederick the Great did, and succeeded in fundamentally re-aligning the alliances that governed the European balance of power in his day. Napoleon did, and almost succeeded at creating a French continental hegemony. However, the riskier the gambit, the more you need to study the odds, plan for contingencies, summon everything and everyone you can in your cause before you roll the dice. Not only will you reduce the risk of rolling craps, but you cushion your losses if you do.
That’s what made the Bush Administration’s otherwise laudable attempt at seizing the initiative a grand failure. The Administration did not carefully study the pros and cons, the opportunities and risks. Not only did it brush aside (and alienate) its traditional allies, but it also paved over the advice from its very own experts in the executive branch. (See the sad history of the Future of Iraq project for a good example.) Like an eight year old playing his first game of Risk, the Bush Administration scooped up its forces, dropped them on the map, rolled the dice, and then childishly refused to admit that its strategy wasn’t well thought through.
Sometimes, a game isn’t totally lost. Another player might take over someone’s position, look at the board with fresh eyes, and extricate that side from what had looked like certain defeat. Or, perhaps, the original player might realize his mistakes, and act with the candor and self-criticism needed to dig out of the hole he made for himself. What won’t work, of course, is another childish display of petulance, in which, against all objective measures, the player claims that, in fact, he’s really winning the game. In chess, if someone refuses to admit checkmate, you know never to play with that person again. It’s just a game. War is not.