The View From Olympus: Another Strategic Blunder

The latest cruise missile caracole aimed at Syria was militarily meaningless.  A few empty buildings were destroyed, residents of Damascus and Homs lost a couple hours of sleep and honor was satisfied.  The only thing missing was Handel’s Musick for the Royal Fireworks

What was not trivial was that America once again fell into its besetting policy of sacrificing the strategic level to the tactical.  Strategically, we need an alliance with Russia and we need to restore the state in Syria.  When someone, probably not the Syrian government, launched a minor tactical attack that may or may not have used chemical weapons we immediately forgot our strategic goals and interests and fired off some missiles.  This is the response of a spoiled child, not a serious nation.

As I have pointed out before, a rule of war is that a higher level trumps a lower.  No matter how brilliant your tactical performance, if you lose operationally, you lose.  You can win repeatedly at the tactical and operational levels, as Germany did in both World Wars, but if you lose strategically, you lose.  It follows that one of the most elementary errors in statecraft is sacrificing a higher level to a lower.  And the U.S. does it time and time again.

In this case, part of the reason for the idiocy was the dreaded words, “chemical weapons!”  Chemical weapons, which used to be called poison gas, are now considered a “Weapon of Mass Destruction” like nuclear weapons.  This is historical nonsense.

The last war where poison gas was widely used was World War I.  It proved difficult to deploy, often ineffective, and much less deadly than standard artillery shells.  90% of soldiers gassed in World War I recovered.  While some suffered life-long breathing problems, most did not.  And none lost limbs or suffered massive brain damage from shock waves.

Nor is it likely the gas used in this case, if it was in fact used, was employed by the Syrian government.  Damascus has to be aware of the strategic disadvantages it suffers if it uses gas.  If Mr. Assad is dumb enough to sacrifice the strategic level to the tactical, his Russian advisors are not.

Logic suggests we ask the question, “Who benefits?”  The obvious answer is, those fighting against the Syrian state, i.e. the rebels, some of whom we are supporting.  Are they such monsters that they would gas their own people to provoke an American attack on Damascus?  Absolutely.  When President Trump referred to the Middle East as a “troubled place”, he was being kind.  Every player there is a monster.

The President will best serve this country if he follows through soon on his desire to bring U.S. troops home from Syria, and Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Regrettably, he seems to get buffaloed by the generals; at least he has been on the Afghan mess.  We can stay there another 100 years and nothing will be any different.

But leaving our current quagmires will not fix the underlying problem, our ingrained habit of sacrificing a higher level of war to a lower.  Not only do we do it in reference to the three classic levels of warfare, tactical, operational, and strategic, we also do it with Col. John Boyd’s three levels, physical, mental, and moral.  The reason we lose Fourth Generation wars is that the U.S. military, which seeks to reduce war simply to putting firepower on targets, sacrifices the mental and moral levels to the physical.  Clever Fourth Generation entities focus on the moral levels, which Boyd argued is the highest and most powerful level.  So they win.

Here’s a question for Russian intelligence to work on: to which kindergarten class has Washington contracted out its thinking?

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.