T. E. Lawrence on Strategy and Tactics, and the Power of Ideas

13 03 2015

57936Right now I’m working my way through Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, T. E. Lawrence’s memoir of his adventures in the Middle East. I’m enjoying it a good deal more than I anticipated. Lawrence was, it appears to me, a jerk. For instance, he spelled the names of places and people differently intermittently, and on purpose. He explained that this was because they were frequently spelled differently, which doesn’t help the reader much. But I suspect he really wasn’t writing for the reader. In fact, he says:

There are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history.

The edition I’m reading includes the historiography of the book, which is an adventure in itself, as well as some correspondence between Lawrence and his editor, in which you can see that not only was Lawrence a jerk, but he knew he was a jerk, he knew his editor knew he was a jerk, and moreover he knew that the editor needed him so badly that Lawrence had no motivation whatsoever to curb his jerk tendencies.

Enough of that – let’s get to it. In Chapter 33 (there are many short chapters – Lawrence anticipated the People Magazine approach to article length), Lawrence recounted the thoughts running through his head as he lay prostrate with illness, or as he described it “in impotence upon my face in this stinking tent.” I won’t get into the insight provided regarding the situation in the area then and its applicability to the world today, but will say if you’re interested you should really check the book out. This is the pivotal chapter (I think) where Lawrence hits upon the secret to “victory.” Not really being a military man by his own admission, Lawrence nevertheless found himself in a position of high command. So, with time on his hands, he started to think back on what he had read, beginning at Oxford, from “Napoleon to Clausewitz and his school, to Caemmerer and Moltke, and the recent Frenchmen” to “Jomini and Willisen” to “Saux and Guibert” to “Kuhne and Foch.”

Now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about strategy and tactics and operations and goals and objectives, it’s that no matter how smart or well-versed you are, whatever your thoughts on them may be, somebody – somebody really smart and well versed – is going to tell you you’re thinking about it all wrong. If you’re really unlucky, they’ll toss about a few acronyms and initials to boot. So keep that in mind as you consider Lawrence’s thinking, which I’ve transcribed selectively.

But first, click on this link to give a little background music to the rest of the read:

When it grew too hot for dreamless dozing, I picked up my tangle again, and went on ravelling it out, considering now the whole house of war in its structural aspect, which was strategy, in its arrangements, which were tactics, and in the sentiment of the inhabitants, which was psychology; for my personal duty was command, and the commander, like the master architect, was responsible for all.

The first confusion was the false antithesis between strategy, the aim in war, the synoptic regard seeing each part relative to the whole, and tactics, the means towards a strategic end, the particular steps of its staircase. They seemed only points of view from which to ponder the elements of war, the Algebraical element of things, a Biological element of lives, and the Psychological element of ideas.

The algebraical element looked to me a pure science, subject to mathematical law, inhuman. It dealt with known variables, fixed conditions, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type-masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids and the extensions given our faculties by mechanical invention. It was essentially formulable.

Lawrence went on to do the math with regards to the size of the area he wished to “deliver” and how his enemy was likely to defend it. Then he hits upon his true weapon, that of ideas:

…but suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, and idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. We might be a vapour, blowing where we listed.

(When it comes to Bull Run, I think this notion of an idea or ideal as a weapon needs to be explored. At this point of the war, the possibility of an ideological impact was greater than it would ever be again. In the north, some – even Lincoln – still held out hope that southern unionists were the key to bringing the wayward sisters home, so highly did they value the idea of “Union.” How, if at all, did this belief or hope affect Union strategy? There’s not much documentation to go on, but you have to wonder…)

Then Lawrence calculated the number of men his enemy would require to defend the ground, and the number required to achieve his aims. He moved on to the biological factor and makes some keen observations with regard to reserves.

[I] plunged into the nature of the biological factor in command. Its crisis seemed to be the breaking point, life and death, or less finally, wear and tear… A line of variability, Man, persisted like leaven through its estimates, making them irregular. The components were sensitive and illogical, and generals guarded themselves by the device of a reserve, the significant medium of their art. [Military theorist Colmer Freiherr von der] Goltz had said that if you knew the enemy’s strength, and he was fully deployed, then you could dispense with a reserve; but this was never. The possibility of accident, of some flaw in materials was always in the general’s mind, and the reserve unconsciously held to meet it.

The ‘felt’ element in troops, not expressible in figures, had to be guessed at…and the greatest commander of men was he whose intuitions most nearly happened. Nine-tenths of tactics were certain enough to be teachable in schools; but the irrational tenth was like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and in it lay the test of generals. It could be ensued only by instinct (sharpened by thought practising the stroke) until at the crisis it came naturally, a reflex.

This last bit touches on the popular belief, which some claim was predominant at least in the North, that great military commanders are born, not made. That a military education and experience might sharpen those with the innate ability to excel in command, but that it could not provide it. That the great, natural soldier who would lead the armies to victory could emerge from any walk of life. Some of this would come to a head in the debate over the value of West Point in the wake of the defeat at Bull Run.

Interview: Donald Stoker, “The Grand Design”

10 08 2010

Donald Stoker is the author of The Grand Design: Strategy an the U. S. Civil War.  Publisher Oxford University Press sent me a copy of the book, and Professor Stoker agreed to answer a few questions for Bull Runnings.

BR: Professor Stoker, please tell us a little about yourself.

DS: I’m Professor of Strategy and Policy with the U.S. Naval War College program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. I’ve taught for the Naval War College for 11 years. The Grand Design is my sixth book.

BR: What made you decide to write a book about strategy in the Civil War?

DS: We were teaching the Civil War as a case study in our Strategy and Policy: The American Experience course. But I wasn’t happy with the texts we were using. One was an exceptional book, but it didn’t deal with the subject in a manner that made it as useful for teaching as we would like, in other words, it didn’t really deal with strategy and operations. I began casting around for something else and the more I looked the more I realized that what we needed didn’t exist. There are a lot of Civil War books that deal partially with some elements of strategy, and a lot that say “strategy” in the title that are really about battles and/or operations, but none that examined the strategic sweep of the entire contest.

BR: Can you summarize The Grand Design in a nutshell?

DS: The Grand Design is the only comprehensive study of the evolution of strategy in the Civil War. It looks at both sides of the struggle, on the land and at sea, and charts (while analyzing), how each combatant used its military power in pursuit of their respective political objectives. It’s most important task is showing “Why” both sides waged the war as they did, as well as “How.” It does this by looking at the strategic and operational (campaign) plans of the presidents and military leaders. And takes as its foundation the pursuit of the political objectives sought and examines how the strategic and operational actions of each side contributed (or not) to the achievement of their political desires.

BR: How long was the book writing process in this case?

DS: This is a difficult question to answer. The full process was around seven years, but its not accurate to say that it took seven years to write the book because I published three other edited books in this time as well as a number of articles on various subjects. The last two years or so before publication were consumed in finishing The Grand Design.

BR: Can you describe your research and writing processes?

DS: I began by trying to write the book from secondary sources. I envisaged it taking a year or so and being about 60,000 words. But the more I read the secondary material, the more I found problems. So I decided to write it from primary sources, which are wonderfully abundant and easily acquired. I just spent an enormous amount of time reading, especially the primary documents. So many of the Civil War leaders were superb writers. Most, in fact. Lee, in particular. And reading Sherman’s letters is ceaselessly entertaining. I highly recommend the Simpson & Berlin version of these.

BR: What challenges did the project present?

DS: The enormity of the project and the volume of material. Covering the war in a single volume, in a coherent manner, while still getting the sweep of the war, is an interesting task. And it is literally impossible to read all of the books on the subject.

BR: Did you find out anything while researching The Grand Design that changed – or reinforced – any opinions you had before you started the process?  What will surprise readers?

DS: I found much to change my mind. The first “big” thing I found was that the offensive-defensive strategy supposedly authored by Jefferson Davis never existed. It’s all based upon a misreading of the primary sources by historians taking a tactical event and concept and trying to apply it to the broad sweep of the war. My opinions of Bragg and McClellan improved; there is more there strategically than is generally credited. I think this will surprise readers.

BR: How has the book been received?

DS: Generally very well. The History Book Club chose it as a Main Selection and most of the reviews have been very good. There are some who hate it, but that’s to be expected. I think some expect a “battle book,” so to speak, and then don’t get it. I’m not against “battle books”. I love them. And the Civil War field has some great ones. But I wanted to do something different.

BR: What’s next for you?

DS: A biography of Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist.

If any of you have read The Grand Design, I’d love to hear what you think.  Perhaps we can entice Prof. Stoker to participate in a discussion here.

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