Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War
John Mueller. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1989. 327 pp. Notes. Ind. $20.95 ($18.95).
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander James Stavridis, U. S. Navy
This is the most optimistic book ever written dealing with nuclear weapons and major war. Retreat from Doomsday is witty, readable, and vivid in advancing two controversial hypotheses: First, that major war is obsolete; and second, that the Cold War has never been close to hot war and could well be on the verge of terminal remission as the Soviet Union's enthusiasm for widespread revolution wanes.
The central premise of the work is that for several centuries, war has been increasingly regarded as an unacceptably inefficient method of conducting foreign policy. According to Mueller, civilized nations are gradually coming to realize that war is repulsive, immoral, uncivilized, and methodologically ineffective. His theory is that World War I proved the insanity of war to the majority of the "civilized" powers, who forever lost their appetite for major confrontation.
He explains the appearance of World War II as the result of the arrival of one man, Adolf Hitler, who was "both sane [at least in the sense of being capable of coherent, self-interested calculation] and highly risk-acceptant." Hitler, through his luck, ruthlessness, and manipulative talent was able to lead Germany into yet another war. Japan, which never learned the lessons of the first World War, joined in with zest.
According to the book, World War II ended whatever lingering notions existed in the developed world about war being anything other than obsolete. Since that time, the developed world has kept itself out of major war, thus creating the longest continuous period of peace since the days of the Roman Empire—what Mueller calls "…history's greatest nonevent."
The book further hypothesizes that nuclear weapons really have not mattered all that much in keeping the civilized world from war—rather it was the aforementioned shifting attitudes toward war that made it obsolete, much as dueling and slavery became anachronisms in the previous century. Likewise, in examining the Cold War, especially the Korean and Vietnam wars, Mueller concludes that East and West were never really that close to full-scale war and, most controversially, that nuclear weapons did not matter much in deterring the two superpowers from war. Contrary to much of the published work on the subject, Mueller believes that the world would have turned out much the same if nuclear weapons had never been invented.
Looking to the future, Mueller advances the theory that the prospects for continued peace are “rather good for the foreseeable future, not only because war has lost its evident appeal but also because substantial agreement has risen around the twin propositions that prosperity and economic growth should be central national goals and that war is a particularly counterproductive device for achieving these goals."
This is a very likeable book—full of breezy, short paragraphs and interesting insights. It manages to breathe a sense of humor and proportion into the study of conflict between nations, a field of scholarship desperately in need of at least a modicum of wit. Unfortunately, the author reads history with a greater degree of optimism than seems warranted.
Two critical questions spring to mind: First, if major war is obsolete, what is going on between Iran and Iraq? While their war is on hold with a temporary cease-fire, it serves as a sad example of the tendency of nations to undertake wars that can very quickly escalate into breathtaking exhibitions of cruelty, immorality, and mass destruction. Even if the United States and the Soviet Union appear less likely to enter into a major war today, the unfortunate reality is that many nations have developed the populations, weaponry, and belligerent attitudes required to generate their own major wars.
In Zones of Conflict: An Atlas of Future Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster 1986), John Keegan surveys a world of 140 standing armies, more than a dozen significant navies and air forces, and at least five strategic nuclear capabilities. He correctly identifies dozens of potential killing fields around the world, including Iran-Iraq, Southeast Asia, the Korean border, South and Central Africa, Palestine, and India-Pakistan. Any of these could flare up with sudden and startling intensity, as the Iran-Iraq War did in 1980. Given the proliferation of modern weapons, the nascent but highly disturbing tendency to use gas, and the longstanding bitterness in many regions, casualties in the hundreds of thousands are quite possible. While global war involving much of the Western world may be far less likely, major war certainly remains a probability over the coming decades.
The second question brought to mind by this book is: If World War II was primarily the result of Hitler's appearance on the scene, what is to prevent a similar charismatic leader from sparking another major war? Today we see the Soviet Union under the leadership of a charismatic visionary (at least when compared with other Soviet leaders). Yet what if Mikhail Gorbachev had arrived on the scene with his youth, energy, manipulative capability, and charisma—and a different set of goals? If he succeeds in his self-appointed quest to reform the Soviet Union, it will serve as a powerful example of the ability of a single man to influence a huge country, given the right set of circumstances. That tells me that as history runs through its inevitable cycles, there will again appear a man or woman such as Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tsetung, Otto von Bismarck, Napoleon Bonaparte, Tamerlane, Genghis and Kublai Khan, Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great—each of whom was able to mobilize a society and turn it toward war.
Mueller does discuss both the possibility of major war in the developing world and the rise of the dangerous charismatic leader, and recognizes the potential of each for inciting large-scale wars. But his optimism remains high and his belief is that the lengthening peace among the richest countries will eventually lead the developing world on the path to peace. As he puts it, "Never before in history have so many well-armed, important countries spent so much time not using their arms against each other."
This book is indicative of the times. We are inundated today with pronouncements that "peace has broken out all over" and "the Cold War is over." Elie Wiesel asks on the pages of Parade magazine, "Are We Afraid of Peace?" In Proceedings we read articles with titles such as "Our Peaceful Navy" (April 1989). It seems somehow uncharitable, almost churlish, to be forced to point out the realities of our global environment. But the sad fact is that more countries are building and buying advanced weapons of war than at any point in the history of the world. And a glance at a globe indicates dozens of likely future wars, albeit most in the developing world. Time bombs tick in Palestine, South Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Indian subcontinent that will not go away because Western intellectuals have decided that war is obsolete.
I wish it were not so. But the world remains a dangerous place, full of awesome arsenals and powerful leaders fully capable of leading entire regions into war. Will the advanced world be drawn in? Perhaps not, if reason prevails. We shall see.
In the meantime, I applaud the wit, spirit, and optimism of John Mueller's controversial and challenging book. It reflects a hopefulness that stands as a great antidote to the depressingly constant messages of doom we typically are sent in today's world. Read it, analyze it, challenge it—but let's keep our swords sharp for a few more years.
Commander Stavridis earned a Ph.D. in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Diplomacy and is currently serving as a long-range planner at the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel. He is slated to join the USS Antietam (CO-54) as executive Officer.
Origins of the Maritime Strategy: American Naval Strategy in the First Postwar Decade
Michael A. Palmer. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1988. 129 pp. Photos. Map. Append. Gloss. Notes. Bib. Ind. $7.50 ($6.75) paper.
Reviewed by Captain John L. Byron, U. S. Navy
It's difficult to overemphasize the importance to serving naval officers of this slim; well-written monograph on the earliest days of modem U. S. maritime strategy. This is history written for the operator, and bite-sized to boot. Timely, resonant with contemporary themes, and relevant to the tough Navy problems of today, this book is background that the Navy strategist must have. The advertising flier for the book suggests why:
"In this first history of the Naval Historical Center's new series you'll learn:
-How the Navy intended to fight a global, conventional war against the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and the early 1950s
-How insufficient forces and inadequate technology in the face of Soviet air and submarine threats drove the Navy into a forward, offensive sea-control strategy in an effort to retain the initiative in a war at sea
-The similarities between the post-World War II naval strategy of Forrestal and Sherman, and the 1980s Maritime Strategy of Lehman and Watkins
-How the Navy's strategic concept was lost in the 1950s."
As Yogi Berra said, "It seems like déjà vu all over again"—doesn't it?
In World War II naval thinking broke away from a Mahanian approach that saw destruction of the enemy's fleet as an end in itself to a broader view that saw such action as means to the more important end of carrying military power against the enemy on land. That war also proved that no service or single nation could hope to prevail by itself in a war of this magnitude; joint and combined operations were critical elements of success in the modem era.
But every success carries the seeds of its failure. For the U. S. Navy, having swept the enemy from the seas, the future was filled with questions, not answers. How big a navy was needed in the postwar era? What force types? What role? What mission? Most fundamentally, who was this navy's enemy?
Admiral Forrest Sherman was enfranchised by Chief of Naval Operations Chester Nimitz to develop the answers. Quoting the book,
"Sherman's proposals for a balanced, prepared force capable of playing a global role in both peace and war gave short- and long-term shape to the Navy's plans. Always present was the call for early, forward, offensive operations. The strategic plans, in turn, determined how operational commands would carry out those tasks assigned to them by the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] and how Navy staffs would draw up programs for the future, plans for mobilization, and budget requests for Congress. By 1948 the Navy had at last a clearly defined postwar strategy—a maritime strategy."
But strategies require forces, which require funds, which require compelling arguments to administration and congressional decision makers. Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, Nimitz's successor, was neither a strong leader within the Navy nor a convincing advocate with Congress. And the case he carried forward was not Sherman's broad vision but rather Vice Chief of Naval Operations Arthur W. Radford's parochial quest for more naval aircraft and bigger aircraft carriers. Radford's program had the naval aviation tail wagging the Navy strategic dog. Following an extraordinary battle with the Air Force fought before Congress (well known afterward as the "Revolt of the Admirals"), Radford and the Navy lost. No super-carrier and no large strategic role for the Navy, said Congress; build the B-36 bomber, instead. Go farther, in fact: stand down the Pacific fleet and relegate the Navy to a distinctly secondary role in a future large war.
Denfeld got fired. Radford departed to command the shrinking Pacific Fleet. Sherman returned from sea duty as the surprise choice to replace Denfeld, finding his maritime strategy in shambles, his concern for antisubmarine warfare discarded—indeed, his Navy about to become irrelevant. His review of JCS plans revealed Army dominance. Had he not acted immediately upon taking office, Navy forces would have been so drawn down as to leave no aircraft carrier in the Pacific when the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in 1950.
Sherman reasserted his vision of maritime strategy. Effective within the Navy (but not necessarily well liked or fully trusted), capable with Congress, and highly regarded within the joint arena, the new Chief of Naval Operations reversed the Navy's bad fortune in remarkably short time. In his short tenure (he died in office in July 1951), Sherman got a super-carrier authorized (the USS Forrestal [CV-59]), brought the Navy back into the Pacific war plans, increased the Navy carrier force intended for mobilization from 8 to 12, and—perhaps most significantly—drove the creation of a robust attack submarine force with a primary mission in ASW.
In the 1950s the carrier-based Navy stayed alive and continued to grow along the ASW/attack submarine vector. Mari time strategic vision died again, however. Sherman had placed the Navy's role in balance with that of the Army and its mission in balance with the strategic bombing mission of the Air Force. Although Navy budgets remained satisfactory, the balanced strategic vision was lost after Sherman's death.
Two agents forced this change: first, Dwight D. Eisenhower instituted a "Massive Retaliation" strategy that emphasized nuclear retaliatory forces at the expense of conventional forces; and second, in 1953 the law changed to move military planning responsibility from the services to the JCS, unified commanders, and the Secretary of Defense. Not until the late 1970s did the Navy return to serious strategic thinking and not until the early 1980s was the allocation of Navy resources again made slave to strategy.
So why does all this somewhat familiar history matter now? Well, as the author says, "scarcity breeds competition in strategic planning." Scarcity of defense resources is what the U.S. military has ahead of it, and the ability to articulate a convincing strategic role for a service will greatly determine the share of scarce dollars that service gets.
The United States has been able to fund military forces to protect both vital and peripheral interests, to choose both conventional and nuclear deterrence, to function as both a national force alone and as a trusted alliance partner, and to stand up forces capable of executing both a maritime strategy and a continental strategy. In each of these strategic realms the U. S. Navy is a critical player. If the changes occurring in the Soviet Union remove the threat driving defense funding, and if the domestic budget squeeze grows tighter, the Navy will be absolutely dependent on its maritime strategy to justify its proper role and size. Those who care about this should know about our last such experience lest we repeat it.
A strategy must exist before it can be sold, of course, but we have one, well maintained and recently updated. Author Palmer, however, points out the danger of keeping a good strategy a secret. Sherman's maritime strategy was never pushed forward at the unclassified level nor was it apparently a topic of major discussion among serving officers outside the policy arena. As Ronald O'Rourke argued in the April 1988 Proceedings in his prize essay (''The Maritime Strategy and the Next Decade") and as Palmer's book strongly reinforces, the current official maritime strategy risks appearing to be anchored to the mid-1980s and to the tenure of retired CNO Admiral James Watkins and former Navy Secretary John Lehman. Only the tiny Navy planning community is aware of the ability of this strategic vision to keep up with funding realities and of the quality of its support by current top Navy leaders.
It is time to republish an updated unclassified version of the current maritime strategy and, amidst all the parochial program-mongering in this difficult budget season, to hammer home as hard as the last team did the underlying strategic justification for full Navy funding.
This splendid small book makes crystal clear that even the right idea needs help to stay in place. That is its most important contribution. Read it.
Captain Byron serves on the faculty of The National War College in the Department of Military Strategy.
Provide for the Common Defense
Rear Admiral George H. Miller, U. S. Navy (Retired). Washington , DC: Washington Publications, 1988. 165 pp. Illus. $14.95.
Reviewed by Norman Polmar
Despite the recent, apprehensive report of the presidential Commission on Merchant Marine and Defense, the extensive use of naval forces to carry out U. S. foreign and military policy during the past 40 years, and the increasing dependence of the world on maritime trade and resources, the American ability to effectively use the seas is declining. Retired Rear Admiral George H. Miller—one of the leading U. S. naval strategists of the post-World War II period—has become the chronicler of this decline.
This is an invaluable collection of Admiral Miller's own writings intermixed with other, relevant articles, often introduced by Admiral Miller's perceptive commentary. His thesis is based on the preamble to the Constitution that directs the Congress and the President to "provide for the common defense." The "bureaucratic system" created by the 1947 National Security Act, which established the Department of Defense, has prevented the Navy from carrying out its missions.
To demonstrate this, Admiral Miller addresses subjects varying from the defense unification of the late 1940s to the proposal for a sea-based ballistic-missile intercept system (SABMIS) in the late 1960s to recent Soviet defense trends. The book is interesting and an invaluable reference, and for those interested in issues related to national as well as maritime strategy, well worth the relatively low cost.
Unfortunately, the book has no index and, too often, Admiral Miller leaps from one issue to another without transition, shortfalls for which the publisher as well as the author is responsible.
Mr. Polmar, a naval analyst and author, contributes frequently to Proceedings.
Strategic Arms Reductions
Michael M. May, George F. Bing, and John D. Steinbruner. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1988. 73 pp. Figs. Tables. Notes. $8.95 ($8 .05) paper.
Reviewed by Rear Admiral W. J. Holland, Jr., U. S. Navy (Retired)
The country desperately needs a public analysis of the potential effects of strategic arms limitations and of the various force structures that might exist after real reductions take place. This little book is not it. In the introduction, the president of Brookings asks the "basic question: what level of nuclear weapons deployment is appropriate to…preventing war?" The authors do not really address this issue.
Although they reject counterforce measures and damage limitation as infeasible, the authors compare various forces by the usual measures of number and yield of warheads , individual weapon accuracy, susceptibility to damage, and alert rate (by which they really mean survivability). Their analysis consists of "draw-down curves"—the numbers of weapons remaining to each side after one conducts a first strike. The alert rates used in the book are questionable measures of survivability and the authors do not consider measures of endurance and control. Even so, the calculations and force structures proposed demonstrate the advantages of sea-based forces. "For maximum crisis stability…forces should be designed, based , and operated in ways that minimize the incentives to such preemption."
The book does demonstrate clearly why the world can be more dangerous with fewer weapons than it is with plenty. It shows that "for reductions below 6,000 warheads, the survivability and alert rates of the forces become more and more important if a disarming first strike is to remain an impossibility…"
But the authors do not explore these keys to future strategic forces or policies, nor do they propose forces other than the triad as planned in 1986. Their calculations are interesting and perhaps useful to those enamored with strategic exchanges as the formula for determining deterrent effects. (They provide "Civil Damage" tables to measure millions of dead.) But the book is simply grist for those who specialize in this area. It lacks the insight, depth, and breadth to be of any more than passing interest.
Admiral Holland served tours as watch officer in the National Military Command Center and as Director, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Warfare in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. His last assignment before retirement was as Deputy Director, Space Command and Control. He is now the president of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Educational Foundation.
Taking Charge: Making the Right Choices
Major General Perry M. Smith, U. S. Air Force (Retired). Second edition. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group, 1988. 261 pp. Append. Bib. Ind. $10.95 ($9.85) paper.
Reviewed by Major T. C. Linn, U. S. Marine Corps
Taking Charge may come as a shock to some Marines (and others) who think they have cornered the market on leadership and learned all there is to learn about it. But in Marine Corps circles—in the Marine Corps Gazette and other published writings of senior Marines—this book is receiving justifiably high acclaim for its insights into the subject.
Taking Charge is a working guide for leaders, especially those in organizations more than a thousand strong. The first edition focused primarily on military organizations, and the latest expands retired Air Force Major General Perry M. Smith's leadership commentary to encompass the civilian sector. Smith's fundamental premise is that leaders do count and can make a difference, even in the largest of enterprises. Such has long been apparent to many in the naval services, but General Smith identifies a school of thought that prefers to believe that leaders in large bureaucracies really don't count for much—and he challenges that notion head-on.
To make a difference, he says, a leader has to know how to tackle the tough issues—and he proceeds to show the reader how. He deals with such issues as firing subordinates, cronyism, handling crises, and the down side of failure in command. His style is smooth, but he plays hard ball on the big issues. In writing on leadership during crisis, for example, he states unequivocally that, in recent history, combat leadership at the higher levels has been poor. He goes on to pose a key question: Can leaders of today, even the good ones, do all they must in meeting their daily responsibilities, yet still have time to study and prepare themselves for the conduct of war? If not, he strongly suggests that such lack of intellectual and professional preparation for war will weaken the ability of the United States to deter war. Many would agree.
Once asked by a senior Marine why leadership did not always come easier with elevated rank and responsibility, General Smith replied that the more senior officers become, the more they tend to forget what they've learned on the way up. Taking Charge offers a useful refresher course on many of these long-forgotten points. Similarly, the chapter on "Creating Strategic Vision" describes a long-lost art—the absence of which renders many of today's leaders incapable of effective military planning.
The second edition is invaluable to leaders no matter what their uniforms—blues, greens, or pinstripe suits. Included in this more universal treatment is a discussion of the role of spouses in providing informal support for the organization without falling into the command-performance trap that can lower organizational morale. Another chapter, "Working for the Big Boss," shifts to the perspective of the subordinate who must deal with a variety of leadership styles, ranging from micro-manager to wimp. Perhaps his most valuable contribution is his treatment of the often talked—about but seldom mastered subject, "Scheduling Your Time."
The candor, experience, and insight that have been evident in General Smith's appearances in a number of seminars on ethics and leadership are clearly apparent in both editions of Taking Charge. He makes his points clearly, and supports them with vivid examples. This book can serve both as yardstick and working guide for leaders at all levels, in all fields.
Major Linn is an infantry officer serving in the plans division at Headquarters Marine Corps.