The View From Olympus: Losing at the Moral/Strategic Level

One of war’s few rules is that failure at a higher level negates the successes at lower levels.  This led to Germany’s defeats in both World Wars; she usually won at the tactical and operational levels but lost at the strategic level.  The result was lost victories.

To look at our own situation today, we need to add John Boyd’s three levels of war, physical, mental, and moral, to the classic levels of tactical, operational, and strategic.  If we plot these categories on a grid, we see that the highest and most powerful level of war is the moral/strategic.  If we look at what we are doing around the world, we see that at the moral/strategic level we are taking actions likely to result in our defeat.

Three examples come readily to mind.  The first is North Korea.  President Trump made a major breakthrough toward ending the danger of another Korean War by meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.  Unfortunately, since that meeting, the President’s advisors have worked to undercut his achievement.  Kim Jong-un wants the U.S. to declare a formal end to the Korean War, which at present is halted only with an armistice.  South Korea favors it, Mr. Trump is said to favor it, and we risk nothing by giving it.  But the President’s advisors are working against it.  Their position is that we should give North Korea nothing until it completes denuclearization.  That treats North Korea as something it is not, a defeated enemy.  Not surprisingly, North Korea is rejecting that approach, which gives the foreign policy Establishment what it wants — a continuation of the Korean stand-off and all the budgets and careers that hang from it.

The second example is so bizarre it defies belief.  Washington has placed new sanctions on Chinese companies and individuals because China bought weapons from Russia.  Huh?  What business it is of ours who China buys weapons from?  Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1950 China has bought most of the weapons it has imported from Russia.  Of course it is going to continue to do so.  It is not as if we want to sell weapons to China; we don’t.   This action is so outlandish and absurd it turns the U.S. into Don Quixote, a madman wandering the world tilting at windmills.  Who does Washington think it is?

The third case is similar, in that it is an attempt to dictate to other sovereign countries in matters that are none of our business.  In one of his few serious foreign policy blunders, the President withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal with Iran.  Wisely, the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese are working together to keep Iran in and thus avoid a war in the Persian Gulf, with all that would mean for the world’s oil supply.  Washington has responded by threatening any foreign company or bank that does business with Iran.  The October 10 New York Times quoted President Trump’s court jester, John Bolton, as saying, “We do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anyone else.”  Again, who do we think we are to tell Europe or anyone else whom they may trade with?  If the EU had a backbone, which it does not, it would forbid any and all European companies to capitulate to unilateral American sanctions.

Each of these cases represents something history has seen all too often, usually from countries that were past their peak as powers and on the downhill slide: the arrogance of power.  We are playing the swaggering bully (just before his nose gets bloodied), wandering around the playground telling everyone else what to do.  It doesn’t go over well.

But each case is more than that: it is a self-inflicted defeat at the moral/strategic level, the highest and most powerful level of conflict.  Morally, it turns us into Goliath (a rather weak-kneed Goliath, given our military record), someone everyone fears but also hates and looks for a chance to get back at.  Strategically, we are pushing China, Russia, and now Europe too, together against us.  If, as Boyd argued, strategy is a game of connection and isolation, we are connecting everyone else and isolating ourselves.

Teddy Roosevelt famously urged America to talk softly and carry a big stick.  Instead, we are yelling for all we’re worth while waving a broken reed, a military that can’t win, and that soon, thanks to feminization, won’t even be able to fight.  That is not likely to end well.


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

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