If war in fact were the kind of thing most Americans have considered it to be, our military problems would be simple enough. In the main, they have conceived it, or rather misconceived it, as a stupendous and evil paroxysm of history that afflicts the human race, or much of it, every so often. They have thought of war as not merely cruel and evil, which it surely is, but as the opposite of peace in all respects, which it is not.
According to the assumptions that have prevailed in the American mind—and in some other national mentalities also—we should cling to peace at almost any price as long as possible. Then, when forced into conflict by wicked enemies, we should wage all- out war with every weapon at hand and with all our energies, until those enemies are either exterminated or so paralyzed as to be unable to resume their evil designs for a long, long time.
One might suppose the experience of two world wars would have modified this naive, good-and-evil concept of war. After World War I, we found that an integrated, prosperous Germany was essential to a stable world, and so we helped to bring it about. After World War II, we spent billions of dollars putting the Italians back on their feet, and more billions restoring, rebuilding, and retraining the West Germans and the Japanese. Indeed, we went further. Under the compulsive pressures of a sinister Soviet-American rivalry, we persuaded both Germans and Japanese to lay aside the pacifist ideas spawned by defeat, to rearm, and to become our allies against a power recently our ally. Had we been wiser still, we might have defeated our enemies less thoroughly and helped our Soviet ally less generously. But we did the next best thing at least, taking a leaf from Bismarck’s book, by converting our defeated enemies into friends, the better to face a partner suddenly become a foe.
By the good-and-evil concept of war, this is utterly cynical and does not make much sense. But it makes a great deal of sense if we regard war, like alliances and foreign aid programs, as an instrument of national policy, a means of exerting influence in world politics. Fortunately, most of America’s leaders in the postwar period have not been mesmerized by the moralistic concept of war embedded in the American tradition. They have rebuilt our military establishment, erected a great alliance system, developed a military- economic aid program overseas, and made the fullest possible use of former enemies in buttressing American security against a new, larger, and more ominous potential enemy.
If the moralistic concept were correct, our task would be large but simple. We would need only to develop and maintain those instruments of mass destruction necessary to pulverize an enemy and then stand in readiness to employ them without inhibitions of any sort when provoked to action. If our cause is pure beyond dispute and our enemy unspeakably evil—if it is as black and white as that, an elementary moral problem—it follows that the greater damage we work on him the nobler and sounder our achievement.
But it just isn’t that simple, for war is not merely the opposite of peace. What we customarily call “peace” is, for the most part, the pursuit of national or coalition objectives by methods short of war. This ought to be much easier to grasp in the last decade than ever before in American history, because it is so plain that cold war and limited or localized wars do not constitute “peace” in the traditional sense of the word. We have seen spread out before our eyes in gloomy and disturbing parade nearly all the varieties of war, in the past ten years. This interval is labeled peace, for convenience, denoting the absence of very large-scale or general hostilities. But in reality we have seen wars of propaganda, wars of nerves, economic wars, localized wars, and wars of limited objective—not to mention rivalries in technology and economic development.
In plain fact, we can grasp the nature of war much better if we think of it as a form of politics. These are not so far apart as most Americans have assumed. Diplomacy and related international activities are the politics of areas larger than single nations. But they are politics none the less. And war is an extension of diplomacy. It is the pursuit of national policy by arms, after other techniques of accommodation fail. War is the conduct of politics by somewhat rougher rules than otherwise prevail.
In essence, politics is simply the means by which differences of opinion or interest among groups of people are reconciled or adjusted. And that is all war is—a means of reaching an accommodation among the large clusters of people called nations. This is why warfare bears a curious resemblance to politics. Only the tools are different—and some of the ground rules.
Some thoughtful person once described politics as “the art of the possible.” Politics has to be carried on at the level of what can be done practically, in the light of man’s various deficiencies. The perfectionist may have a place in the arts, but he is of no earthly use in politics. By debate, by trading votes, by log-rolling—and sometimes by under-the- table activities that are not far above blackmail—legislatures reconcile the divergent aims and interests and values of North and South, East and West, rich and poor, cattle states and industrial states, radicals and conservatives. Compromise is not always esteemed, but it is necessary. In the executive branch, policy-making may draw heavily on the skills of experts. But it remains a process of accommodation, a matter of doing what seems expedient in the circumstances. And every major piece of legislation, normally, is a package of compromises. So was the Constitution itself, as written.
Thus it is that compromise weaves its way into countless arrangements in human affairs. When it takes place among groups of people, in connection with what are considered public matters, we call it politics. That is why politics is an art, and not at all a science. It is the art of the possible.
Much is heard nowadays of “human engineering,” of the scientific manipulation of people, and even of controlling the thought of masses of people by more or less scientific methods. And undoubtedly the sciences of behavior can bring some effective tools to the service of the politician, the administrator, the analyst of public opinion, the editor, or the corporation executive. But politics in any broad sense involves two or more sides. And mostly they are occupied in trying to outguess each other. Outguessing other people is a game, not a technological process—an art, not a science. The very last indoor sport we may expect to develop will be a battle of wits between digital computers of matched weight. Where there is no room left for guesswork, there is no room for gamesmanship.
War is much the same as politics, in this special sense. It is two sides—almost never more than two—trying to outguess each other, and using various forces, weapons systems, strategies, and tactical devices as the tools of the enterprise. To see this comparison clearly, one must lay aside his revulsion at the sordid and cruel facets of war. Professional soldiers do this, in much the same way that surgeons learn not to be distracted from their work by blood or suffering. Thoughtful laymen must do the same, if they are to examine the problem of war intelligently and objectively.
To the moralist, it may be shocking to hear war spoken of as a game. Yet if one is to see its true nature, he has to think of war as a game, a contest, a matching of wits, a large or small enterprise of men trying to outguess one another. The magnitude of the stakes, the justice of one’s cause, the depth of patriotism on either side, the somberness of the sacrifices entailed—these merit respect, but they do not alter the fact that war is a game, and the profession of arms an art.
An art? There are those who speak of the science of war, or who argue that war has become a child of technology. Their effort, whether intentional or not, is to have us believe that war is becoming an enterprise of precision, a scientific project, an adventure in technology. And it is quite true that in recent decades we have seen a staggering growth of military technology. Science and its handmaiden, technology, have come to play steadily larger roles, not only in industry but in Warfare. Science paves the way for technology, and thus for new weapons and whole weapons systems, and thus for new tactics. In contrast to the periods following other great wars, when weapons development usually slowed down or stopped, the technology of war has been in even swifter revolutionary change since 1945 than during World War II or the decade preceding that conflict. The scientists and technicians who are fashioning new weapons systems are marching close on the heels of the science-fiction writers.
Among other things, this means that the existing tools and techniques of war have been growing obsolete faster than ever before in military history. And men also grow obsolete, unless they adjust to changing weapons and tactics. From flag rank down to apprentice seaman, consequently, and from major general to rear-rank private, technology is forcing all military personnel to re-equip themselves for a different sort of warfare. It has even been suggested that some facets of warfare now have become so technical that the armed forces may be obliged to farm them out to private contractors—on the principle that private enterprise is better able to recruit, train, and keep in permanent employment the high orders of technicians needed for today’s weapons and tomorrow’s. Even if it does not come to that, the armed services are going to be compelled to make still further revisions of pay scales and other conditioning factors, in order to hold the technical personnel they need. Professionalism is needed more urgently than ever before, precisely because of increasing technology.
Yet after all is said that can be said about the mounting importance of science and technology, it remains an unalterable fact that war itself is not a scientific enterprise. The enemy, whoever he may be, also has a like technology. If he did not have, there would be no contest (although it is possible to have secondary wars between nations of high technology and nations of little or no technology). Since the enemy in any major war will be matching our general level of technology, we are driven back to the task of appraising his capabilities and his intentions. Choices still have to be made among weapons and strategies—and without full knowledge of what the enemy can or will do. What requires guesswork, intuition, and compromise is an art, not a science.
Furthermore, war itself is a weapon or instrument of politics. Save for the happy savage, who may fight for the sheer pleasure of it, war has no point or purpose save in pursuit of a goal definable in political terms. War, then, is not only akin to the political process. It is also the servant of politics—or, better said, of foreign policy.
It might be well now to examine some of the ways in which compromise—and guesswork—insinuates itself into war.
How much fire power, armor protection, speed, endurance, maneuverability, seaworthiness, and crew comfort can one put into a hull of a given tonnage? This has been the headache, and the challenge, of naval architects for a score of centuries. Every vessel of war is a floating bundle of compromises. Traditionally, British cruisers saved on fuel space and weight because Britain had many wellspaced naval bases and did not have to worry about the breadth of the Pacific, while American designers had to sacrifice some other things to get greater endurance in their ships. The Japanese were able to build more performance into their ships because they could skimp on headroom for personnel and ignore some other personnel requirements. The Germans, between the wars, had a limited- purpose fleet. They could build battleships and heavy armored cruisers that really were raiders, with characteristics the United States and United Kingdom could not afford to put into their vessels.
British and American aircraft carriers of World War II vintages provide a fascinating contrast of designers’ compromises. The British chose armor protection of citadel and flight deck and also made their ships quite comfortable (including ample space for a bar in the wardroom). American naval architects, with different values and demands, including different tribal customs and mores that saved the space and weight of a bar, sacrificed protection and comfort alike in order to get greater offensive power. They provided no armored citadel and the flight deck of the Essex class bore a striking resemblance to the floor of an average American living room. As a consequence, British carriers in that period were better for living in and safer under attack, while American carriers were able to handle two or three times more aircraft.
What is true of ships is equally true of aircraft, tanks, missiles, or any other tools of war, down to the infantryman’s small arms. Compromises are built into all of them. Nor does technological advance do away with the need for compromise. Nuclear power in a ship saves the space and weight of a conventional fuel supply while extending the ship’s endurance. But demands for other desirable characteristics still have to be reconciled.
In 1940 the Germans overwhelmed the whole of France in six weeks, reduced Holland in five days, and were firmly established at the English Channel in fifteen days. But they did not have the weapons or vessels, or even fully settled plans, for conquest of the British Isles. They had a superb Wehrmacht for blitz war on land. But it was built at the sacrifice of the amphibious and airborne forces that might have spanned the Channel and brought them final victory over the Western allies in a short war. It was not a lack of technology that Hitler’s Reich suffered from, but a lack of judgment on geopolitical questions.
In our own postwar military planning, we have had a somewhat different problem of choice, one between long-range and short- range weapons. In the critical years following our hasty demobilization in 1946, we fell into an excessive dependence on our transitory monopoly of the A-bomb—and therefore on our only long-range bomber, the B-36, to deliver the bomb. The B-36 was an obsolete aircraft even while it was being ordered in quantity. But if 1949-50 was a time of great danger, as seemed possible and as the Korean attack confirmed in an unexpected theater, there was something to be said for more long- range bombers, however obsolescent, in order to make full capital of our then exclusive A- bomb capability. There was a compromise to be made between (1) sufficient readiness for 1948, for example, with aircraft destined for limbo, and (2) earlier development and mass production of a long-range jet bomber plus adaptation of atomic weapons to carrier- borne aircraft. The decision taken may or may not have been the wisest possible. Our concern here is merely the fact that it had to be made in great part on a reading of Russia’s intentions, not on the basis of strictly scientific or engineering data.
Today we have still another version of this ubiquitous choice as to the pace of changeover in weapons. For some military purposes, the manned aircraft is headed for oblivion, its place to be taken by the guided or ballistic missile or robot plane. Given a military budget of finite limits, how swiftly do we let our long-range bomber force decline, or be replaced by the IRBM and I CBM? How much money can we take from possible aircraft carrier construction, if any, for building more missile-launching ships, surface or submarine? Or, on dry land, how many infantry divisions can we do without, in view of the defensive uses of tactical atomic weapons against conventional land attack? To carry the problem a long step farther, we may visualize a future moment when it may be appropriate to give up long-range photo-reconnaissance aircraft, and even reconnaissance drones, having launched a fast fleet of untouchable earth satellites to do our photographing of strategic targets on the other side of the globe.
All these choices seem to relate to engineering matters—to the pace of weapons development and to options among types of weapons. But in reality they are compromises, calculated risks, because they usually pose a choice between maximum readiness now and the development of tomorrow’s superior weapons sooner. In the context of a limited ceiling on defense expenditure, the decision is likely to turn on somebody’s appraisal of a purelv political matter—the prospective enemy’s mood and intentions.
There is a roughly similar job of guesswork in deciding about the quantities of weapons and other tools to maintain in readiness. Until 1945, it had been standard American doctrine to count on building a mass army after going to war, while various allies stood off our foes. This would be folly today. We have to maintain substantial ground forces, not mere cadres, because we do not have the protected status we once had.
Additionally, we have before us, in the event of all-out war, the possibility of a swift (but perhaps not mercifully swift) holocaust— a nuclear war lasting a month or two, not five years. Ought we then to put all our stress on forces in readiness? Or try to maintain the best and largest possible facilities for mass- producing the weapons of a future conflict? This too calls for artful judgment, not for the sort of dogmatic answer we might get from an electronic computer after feeding in a mass of data.
Quite understandably, most Americans, including most of their Congressmen, have focused their attention on the frightening danger of all-out, nuclear war. They have been more ready to spend money for the tools of all-out offensive war with atomic weapons than for such pedestrian purposes as backing up some little-known, remote Asian country that is under Communist pressure. And given the specialization of warfare today, there are not many weapons or pieces of equipment or military skills that can serve both for all-out nuclear war and for beating out brush-fires in the backwaters of the world.
Budgetary emphasis on long-range air and ballistic missiles has been backed up by frequent political pronouncements from Washington, all conveying the notion that our security depends mainly on massive retaliation at places and times of our own choosing. This has caught the popular imagination. And following the Soviet launching of an ICBM and the Sputniks there is still greater demand for putting still more of our eggs into the basket of readiness for all-out, nuclear war.
Yet is it not a fact that the very destructiveness of modern weapons is in itself a deterrent to all-out war? With the closely-matched technological advances of American and Soviet military establishments, we do have a kind of nuclear stalemate. It is transparently foolhardy for either government to take the step to a conflict that will leave both sides in smoking ruin. However, this very deterrent to all-out war tends to force the pace of cold war, which can embrace economic rivalry, competitive overseas aid programs, and surreptitious infiltration in various marginal areas, such as South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and even Middle America on occasion.
In other words, it is something like an axiom of world politics today that the tighter the stalemate on all-out war, the more intense the pressure that lights off brush fires. And it is entirely possible for the United States to lose the great showdown of the twentieth century, not by defeat in a global atomic blitz, but by the persistent nibbling of Communist agents and partisans in minor countries that happen to be (1) strategically located and (2) ideologically vulnerable.
Conceivably, the growth of Soviet influence in Syria, threatening the encirclement of Turkey and isolation of Iraq, may prove to be a much more serious matter than Moscow’s propaganda triumph in launching the first earth satellite. A military planner should not be accused of living in the nineteenth century if he prefers holding the Dardanelles in safe hands to a six-month lead in long-range missile development. After all, it is only Turkey’s unhampered control of the Straits that keeps the Soviet Black Sea fleet from becoming a Soviet Mediterranean fleet.
It must be remembered also that “massive retaliation” and the weapons systems to make good on that doctrine are a deterrent only against an all-out enemy attack—or a move inviting the same response. They are not a deterrent to petty larceny in the Middle East— or even grand larceny. The Kremlin knows the American government is not going to plunge the world into nuclear chaos in order to prevent the USSR from opening another small window onto the Mediterranean. We need suitable weapons and a proper strategy for combatting brush fires, all separate from and in addition to the forces and gear for the ultimate, nuclear showdown.
This, of course, leads to an intuitive compromise, just as do other dilemmas we have noticed above. With an upper limit on men, money, brains, and materiel for defense in toto, we have to allot some for the mighty nuclear offensive, land-based and sea-based, but some also for the less dramatic forces and facilities required for fire-fighting in sundry odd corners of the globe. And our decision between this pair of alternatives must not rest on the traditional American notion that only a big war is worth waging. It must rest on a canny appraisal of where and how our opponent is likely to push his quest for world domination—and what we must do to counter every such move.
Still another sort of compromise is demanded of a democracy intent on defending itself. This is to determine how much of the nation’s total resources—of money, manpower, brains, materiel—is to go into the military establishment, and how much is to remain in the civilian economy. It is the old guns-or- butter dilemma. There is nothing to be gained by accumulating military power beyond the capacity of the nation to support it, year after year.
This of course is not a decision for the military to make—although their recommendations will figure largely in the decision. A close look at our military outlays across the years reveals a surprising uniformity of military expenditure as a percentage of total Federal spending. In 1841-45, a fairly representative period a century ago, the military represented 55 per cent of the national budget. In 1955, it was 56 per cent. Defense costs have rocketed upward in recent years; but other Federal spending has increased correspondingly.
The real test, however, is not the percentage of Federal budgets earmarked for military purposes. It is the percentage of the total national income. That is the measure of how far we can go in defense without endangering the basic economy that must maintain our defense. Fortunately the postwar period of high military expenditure has been paralleled by an extraordinary expansion of our productiveness and of our national income. The United States emerged after World War II as the chief military power of the free world, no longer able to depend on its allies to take the hardest blows first, in case of war. In consequence, it has had to build and maintain a military establishment of dimensions unprecedented in our peacetime history.
From 1931 to 1935, our military expenditure averaged around $800 million a year. Twenty years later, from 1951 to 1955, it ranged from $21 billion to $44 billion a year. The national income rose greatly in that 20- year interval, but not on any such scale as that. Defense costs in the 1930’s were around two per cent of national income. In the 1950’s they are ranging between eight and twelve per cent of national income. This is one measure of the cost of becoming a super-power, in the center of world politics and in a world divided and unstable. It is the price tag on leadership and responsibility.
Always—to come back to our main point—this ratio reflects a compromise. It lies somewhere between the minimum defense we might dare to risk and the maximum we might like to have. There is no rule of thumb, no formula. Those who make the decisions from year to year—the military, the budget bureau, the President and his economic advisers, the Congress—have to consider not only the magnitude of the danger from foreign enemies but the state of our economy and the level of general well-being.
The most basic of all the types of compromise required in military planning is the one most fully recognized in classical texts on strategy. It is the choice between the maximum of offensive power and the maximum of security. A long time ago, in 218 B.C., Hannibal took a long chance, left Carthage defenseless, and marched his forces around the perimeter of the western Mediterranean, up through Spain, across the Alps, and down through Italy to engage the Romans at their own front door.
In 1915-16 the Germans took the risk of alienating the United States by waging unrestricted U-boat warfare on neutral shipping. They hoped—and fully expected—to choke Britain into submission before the United States could decide on war and bring any force to bear. In World War II the American government ignored West Coast newspapers and fought merely a holding action against Japan until the doom of Hitler’s Germany was sealed. There was precedent, for in 1898 when the same government had sent the fleet against Spanish forces in Cuban waters, leaving the Atlantic seaboard unprotected, it had to defy the hysterical demands of East Coast newspapers.
One lesson is that newspaper editorials are not necessarily a good source of strategic ideas for a military high command. Another —of more importance—is that you want to be quite sure of your calculations and judgments before you sacrifice security for the offensive, and vice versa. This holds not only in the conduct of war but also in preparation for possible war. The Air Force would like to disperse its SAC bases more widely in the interest of security, although this would entail some loss of efficiency in administration and in offensive operations as well. The Navy always has to make some apportionment of its funds between (1) antisubmarine weapons for secure sea command and (2) attack carriers and missile-firing ships for offensive striking power. At a higher echelon, a compromise must be made between (1) vulnerable missile-launching stations on land and (2) more costly but harder-to-find missile-launching submarines or surface ships.
These and many related decisions have to rest in large part on someone’s evaluation of the prospective enemy’s capabilities and intentions. Once the USSR had the A-bomb and long-range aircraft in numbers, the United States had to spend heavily for the Pine Tree, Mid-Canada, and DEW lines. Now that the USSR apparently has a long- range ballistic missile and may soon have it operational, our doctrine may have to be modified anew, perhaps in a switch of emphasis from interception to passive defense. Or such developments may require us to slacken in security measures generally, in favor of a still greater capability for massive retaliation, on the principle that deterrent power really confers more security than would defensive measures.
These are not decisions to be made with a slide rule. They are not decisions to be made with inflexible logic. Facts on which to base a fully rational decision may not be obtainable. Somebody finally has to use the best common- sense judgment the Lord gave him.
It is entirely possible that some grim moment in the future, at the outset of a major conflict, will demand a heart-breaking decision beyond any of these in magnitude and gravity. That could be whether to use our maximum offensive power at once and without restraint, for the earliest destruction of the enemy’s power to resist, or to abjure the use of some of the most potent of our weapons, in order to retain the good will, respect, and cooperation of important neutrals or queasy allies—or even in order to earn the respect and trust of wavering people in the enemy coalition who seem disposed to rise in revolt. And before anyone asserts that the answer to this hypothetical dilemma is obviously to exploit every weapon to the limit, he might well recall the German decision to launch unrestricted U-boat warfare in 1917. The object of war is not to work the maximum damage to the enemy, as fast as possible. The object of war is to win at the end—and to have at the end some hope of stability and security in one’s international relationships. That might require the enemy’s unconditional surrender. But it is just as likely it would require us to stop short of total, absolute victory.
In this brief exploration of the nature of modern war and the kinds of basic decisions it involves, there is no intent to depreciate science and technology. Both of them loom larger than ever in the profession of arms and in the military potential of nations. Scientific research is the authentic frontier of military progress. The crucial battle for the world in the twentieth century may be under way now, in the laboratories of the superpowers. Or it may have been fought and won, without our knowing it, in the prior training of scientists and technicians of the United States and the USSR. If, as Wellington said so memorably, the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it is entirely possible that the climactic battles of 1976 or 1984 are being played now in the real bottlenecks of science—the math and physics classes of a thousand high schools in America and Russia.
But the stubborn fact remains: science and technology are only tools of war, servants of strategy. War and preparation for war remain indisputably an art, as deeply rooted in intuition and compromise as politics—the art of the possible. War, despite all the fantastic changes it has undergone, is still much more like a chess game than a problem one can program into an electronic brain.
The black rook may be a massive force of nuclear-powered, missile-firing submarines. The white knight may be an armored division featuring sturdy robot tanks. The black queen may be an intercontinental ballistic missile, which indeed may be shaped somewhat like a queen. The black bishops, so valuable early in the play, may be envisioned as two task groups built around giant aircraft carriers.
One may call it chess in the grand manner, if he likes. But it’s still chess. And that is because there are two sides—two wills, two brains or sets of brains. Neither knows what his enemy can do, with certainty, or what he will do. Nor can the very best of intelligence services produce facts enough to eliminate the need for judgment. The answer to Sputnik had to come from our scientists and engineers. The specific response to Russia’s boast of an I CBM necessarily depends on what our engineers and technicians—and those of Britain— can produce. But America’s over-all answer to the over-all challenge of Soviet power and purpose has to be a comprehensive preparedness and a global strategy, formulated by generalists, not specialists—by chess players, not physicists. Strategy remains the heart of warfare.
It is good to have plenty of scientists and technicians close at hand. It is good to bring a certain number of science-minded officers with specialized knowledge into the top echelons of the military services, as now is being done, and without penalty because as specialists their command experience has been limited. But we shall still need in the top billets a sturdy backlog of all-round officers who played good chess during their junior course at the war college. The highest responsibilities belong to men who are old-fashioned enough to think of war, not as science-fiction come true, but as a game of wits.