Image of massive tunnel bomb exploding at Syrian army base; courtesy of Reuters (Credit: Khalil Ashawi). Image of massive tunnel bomb exploding at Syrian army base; courtesy of Reuters (Credit: Khalil Ashawi).

Note: We’re revisiting some of our most popular material from the past 10 months for our newer readers; this was originally posted May 21, 2014. Enjoy!

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

The other day I had a valuable email back-and-forth with a professional acquaintance on teaching strategy.  We differed on several points, but there was quite a bit of general agreement as well.  One point where we were in violent concurrence was on the influence of strategic culture on tactics.  I feel that culture has a bit more influence on warfare than my counterpart does – but concede the broad point that different strategic cultures often gravitate toward a particular “best” tactical approach.  These similar choices can also be seen beyond culture – they can be seen across time.

The result is that, paraphrasing the comment often attributed (but never proven) to Mark Twain, “warfare does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”  Sir Michael Howard once said much the same, “[f]or after all allowances have been made for historical differences, wars still resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity.”  Even across time, the basics in land warfare are often the same.  Journalist Sebastian Junger, in his book War, remarks on these fundamental tactical principles – and is worth considering at length:

“In a war…soldiers gravitate toward whatever works best with the least risk. At that point combat stops being a grand chess game between generals and becomes a no-holds-barred experiment in pure killing. As a result, much of modern military tactics is geared towards maneuvering the enemy into a position where they can essentially be massacred from safety. It sounds dishonorable only if you imagine that modern war is about honor; it’s not. It’s about winning, which means killing the enemy on the most unequal terms possible. Anything less simply results in the loss of more of your own men…There are two ways to tilt the odds in an otherwise fair fight: ambush the enemy with overwhelming force or use weapons that cannot be countered.” (p. 140)

As tactical objectives are roughly the same, and human beings still control warfare (a more open question as technology progresses) – then we are bound to find recurring tactical themes in warfare.  Consider the experience Captain (later Lieutenant General) “Gus” Pagonis recalled in his book Moving Mountains.  He wrote about his first mission in Vietnam: “to mount 105mm howitzers…on a fleet of barges, and use our LCM-8’s [flat bottomed boats] to move that firepower up and down the rivers of the Mekong Delta.”  He went on to describe his learning process for that task – heavily reliant on an understanding of this cyclical pattern in tactical warfare:

“The first order of business, therefore, was to figure out how to mount these guns on the barges. I leafed through the available manuals and found no guidance there. But having dabbled in military history during several academic jaunts, I figured that in the long history of warfare, somebody must have tried to do something similar. I put in a call to the Office of the Chief of Military History, who dug around a bit and finally cam up with a Civil War manual that depicted some Union barges on which guns had been mounted. He sent us copies of the relevant pages; and in short order, my sergeants were retooling our barges, mounting our own howitzers based on plans developed a century earlier. History, once again, proved to be very helpful.” (p. 36-37)

Thus, even for very junior military officers, it can be useful to entertain the notion that warfare “rhymes.” What follows are three examples, both below and above ground, in which the contemporary operating environment provides links to previous warfighting experience.

Below Ground: Syria and The Crater in the American Civil War

Image courtesy of the National Park Service. Image courtesy of the National Park Service. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

On Thursday, May 15, Syrian rebels tunneled 2,800 feet to emplace 60 tons of explosive under  a Syrian army base (image at beginning of essay; video available here).  In comparison, the Union effort to break the Confederate lines on July 30, 1864 at what became known as the Battle of the Crater was much smaller.  The shaft was just over 500 feet; Union soldiers used approximately 4 tons of explosive.  Another difference is that the Union army conducted the detonation in conjunction with an (unsuccessful) offensive, while the Syrian rebels seem to have been content with the massive explosion as a standalone activity. In both cases, the tunneling achieved tactical surprise.  In sum, though key characteristics differ, warfare could be said to have “rhymed” in these cases.

Above Ground 1: Obs. Post Restrepo and the Dorchester Hts. in the American Revolution

Image courtesy of Huffington Post and Outpost Films (Image copyright). Photo is of Outpost Restrepo, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan; taken as a film still from the documentary Restrepo, by Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger. Image courtesy of Huffington Post and Outpost Films (Image copyright). Photo is of Outpost Restrepo, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan; taken as a film still from the documentary Restrepo, by Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Image is a detail of a 1775 map of Boston, with Dorchester Heights at the bottom right. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Image is a detail of a 1775 map of Boston, with Dorchester Heights at the bottom right.

Afghanistan is full of mountainous terrain.  There is ample opportunity to gain the high ground on a tactical adversary.  Again, author Sebastian Junger’s book War provides a useful example in his description of a U.S. Army platoon occupying one such position in the Korengal Valley, Kunar Provice, Afghanistan (circa 2008-9):

“In the dead of night a week earlier, Third Platoon walked up the spur above Table Rock and started digging. Second platoon went as well to protect them. They set up fighting positions west of the new outpost and on the hillside above it and then all night long listened to the dink, dink, dink of pickaxes hitting shelf rock. Third platoon was desperately digging in so that when dawn came they’d have some cover. The new outpost was on top of a position the enemy had used for months…From that hilltop the Americans controlled most of the high ground…which meant that those bases could no longer be attacked effectively.” (p. 62)

Compare this experience with General George Washington’s force emplacement on the Dorchester Heights, overlooking the British army and fleet, on the evening of March 4, 1776.  Upon receipt of the cannons Henry Knox salvaged from Fort Ticonderoga, Washington sought to gain an advantageous position over the British to end the siege.  By approximately 4a.m. on March 5th (symbolic as the sixth anniversary of the Boston Massacre) – the Americans held the key terrain overlooking the harbor.  The British were forced to leave on March 17th, 1776 (St. Patrick’s Day) without at fight.  Again, one can find differences in these two experiences: platoon level versus thousands of soldiers; small arms outpost versus fortified artillery emplacement; rural versus urban.  However, the desire to hold high, advantageous ground over a tactical opponent is much the same – and so we are bound to find examples across time.

Above Ground II: Technological Gains, Speed, and Accuracy in War Reporting

Today, “everyone has a phone – so everyone has a camera – so everyone can be a land war correspondent.”  New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan recently wrote on this challenge in an essay, “The Promise, and Pitfalls, of Video.”  In it, she calls to light the difficulties of “authenticating video images” in “today’s relentless, 24-hour news cycle.”  She was specifically commenting on some video linked to the recent Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria, as well as claims by pro-Russian forces to have shot down a Ukrainian helicopter.  In both cases, the media faces difficult choices about publication, because, as one editor commented, “video is so immediate and so visceral; it is very compelling and we have to be extra vigilant.”  Sullivan described the process in the news room:

“On one recent occasion, The Times walked right up to the line of publication, then stopped. An amateur video purporting to show helicopters being downed by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine had been circulated by wire services, although with disclaimers attached. According to a Times video producer, Ben Werschkul, The Times prepared the video for publication but at the last moment decided not to use it. Editors on the international desk thought it skewed too close to propaganda and was not substantive enough to publish as news, in addition to being of uncertain origin.”

As Ms. Sullivan concludes, “with the increased importance of video…the many places it can come from, and the fast pace of news, the chances of a perfect [accurate publication] record are low.”  In short, ubiquitous video has enabled faster, more graphic war reporting – putting a strain on accuracy.

One might compare this to the electric telegraph’s impact upon the American Civil War battlefield.  Despite this technological innovation’s promise, “rather than improving the quality of the news…at least in the eyes of Southern journalists, actually made it worse.”  Take the comment from July 10, 1863, when the editors at The Richmond Enquirer summed up their experience with the new device:

“We may as well give up the attempt to know anything about the fate and fortunes of our armies in any quarter whatever; and all in consequence of the infernal invention of the electric telegraph. It is one of the worst plagues and curses that have ever befallen this human race. It covers us all over with lies, fills the very air we breathe and obscures the very sun; makes us doubt of everything we read, because we know that the chances are ten to one it is false; and leaves us uncertain, at last of our own existence. Men say it brings intelligence quick; yet every event announced by it is always so obfuscated by these quick-coming reports, all destroying one another, that the true story is generally longer in being ascertained than it was before.”

One could almost swap the words of Sullivan’s New York Times and the Civil War-era’s Richmond Enquirer – both project a sense of frustration with the daily journalistic knife fight with balancing speed and accuracy.  This was true 150 years ago, remains true today, and will likely continue.

Concluding Thoughts

There are two lessons one might take from this brief tour of the connections emanating from today’s warfare to yesterday’s historical cases.  The first is to pay close attention to both clauses of the paraphrased quotation: warfare does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” One should go even farther – warfare never repeats itself – it cannot.  The unique circumstances for each time and era are never perfectly replicated.  This should throw the cold water of caution on any prediction logic based on historical case study.  The context is always changing in war.

However, as described, there are characteristics of warfare that continue on – rhyming their way forward through time.  To the student of strategy and war, particularly the Profession of Arms, this solidifies the importance of a sense of military history (in proper social and political context). It was clearly useful for Captain “Gus” Pagonis in Vietnam – and that tune will certainly “rhyme” again.