Tag: geostrategy

When Warfare Rhymes

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)

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An Ebola Manifesto for the Military Profession

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

There are three conclusions for the military profession to be drawn from the present Ebola outbreak: the threat is enormous, but ultimately manageable; the desired ends are currently vastly under resourced; and the profession’s lack of intellectual focus on the outbreak may result in the nation bumbling towards unnecessary, potentially catastrophic, strategic shock. 


A selection, on the threat Ebola poses:

There is also a major qualitative factor that makes Ebola much more threatening than nearly any other contemporary threat.  ISIS may do some pretty horrible things on video, but ISIS can’t stop you from showing affection to other human beings.  It’s been remarked that Ebola’s “cultural casualty” has been human contact. One journalist posed the seemingly impossible, but very real scenario in West Africa: “imagine trying not to touch your 2-year-old daughter when she is feverish, vomiting blood and in pain.” We often curse terror groups that use children as human shields; Ebola similarly uses human decency against us by preying on our need for human contact and comfort. Consider that in Sierra Leone, people now tap their chests in place of a handshake.  This is part of the government’s “A-B-C” public health campaign there – “Avoid Bodily Contact.”  Ebola poisons relationships just as much as it does bodies; we might come to a point where “STD” means Socially Transmitted Disease. 

ISIS may strike but does not have the ability to impact our way of life like Ebola.

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On Ebola: Calculating Geostrategic Landpower Requirements

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

In his famous 1998 set of BBC Radio Reith lectures, military historian Sir John Keegan described war as a “protean activity” that “changes form, often unpredictably” like a “disease” that “exhibits the capacity to mutate and mutates fastest in the face of efforts to control or eliminate it.”  Today, some have used similar themes in describing ISIS.  Columnist Maureen Doud has noted that ISIS “has rampaged like a flesh-eating virus through the region,” while her colleague at the New York Times, Tom Friedman, writes about ISIS that we can only “contain these organisms, until the natural antibodies from within emerge.”  And, ISIS certainly can seem like a horrible malady that will not end.  Particularly when coupled with all the writing on the 100th anniversary of WWI.  We’re told that our modern world bears many similarities to that of a century ago – Margaret MacMillan of Oxford has argued that we’re complacent, while Christopher Clark of Cambridge has assessed that we could be “sleepwalking” into another global conflagration.  When we think about war in our world, we can’t help but consider that ISIS might be a catalyst for a much larger war.

But it’s worth wondering – when we compare ISIS and the Ebola outbreak –  what is the more likely and more dangerous threat to the United States and world?  It has been estimated that ISIS numbers approximately 30-40,000, with roughly 100,000 supporters.  Consider that ISIS can only coerce so many people into their ranks – they are limited by what they can “infect” by religion and geography.

In comparison, the current Ebola count stands at 7,400 infections and 3,400 deaths, which admittedly is lower base rate than ISIS.  Yet it has much greater growth potential.  In Liberia the virus is doubling every 15-20 days while in Sierra Leone it takes 30-40 days (Global Public Square with Fareed Zakaria, 28 September).  The CDC has said that the worst case scenario puts the spread at 1.4 million by January.  And it could get much, much worse.  An epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota believes that it could go airborne.  Moreover, it could get “airborne” another way.  Were Ebola to make its way into a megacity like Lagos, then there would be eight daily chances for the disease to make the flight to the United States.  This potential might compound what is clearly a growing threat and turn it into a durable one.  

So far, this has all been quantitative – we ought to consider the qualitative description of what we’re facing.  First, Ebola can infect anyone.  It is truly indiscriminate and will strike regardless of religious or tribal affiliation, which enables it a wider spread than ISIS.  With ISIS, we can target that organization’s material capabilities (i.e. the current airstrikes); Ebola is a much more problematic “target set” in this regard – what good are our strike capabilities?  Of course, ISIS shocked the conscience of the world by killing journalists; Ebola would literally kill everyone as “it” has no conscience.  And what is perhaps most worrying – as bad as they are, most members of ISIS have some morale that we can potentially degrade. In comparison, Ebola has no will to erode.

So, consider this thought experiment – what if we knew for certain that ISIS would double in a month?  Then again. And so on.  That’s the Ebola outbreak’s track record.  One could think of this Ebola outbreak like a persistently growing earthquake – shaking first for a month at 3.0 on the Richter scale, then a month at 4.0, then 5.0 – until, like the 3-11 quake that hit Japan, eventually we get to 9.0 and catastrophic strategic effect.

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Learning from the Summer Wars of 2014

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

*Note: This essay is based on remarks to be delivered on Tuesday, 19 August 2014, at the Defense & Strategic Studies War Council event, “Summer Wars: ISIS, Ukraine, and Gaza.”

The Oxford historian Margaret McMillan recently related a story taken from the opening scenes of World War I: 

“The leading newspaper editor in Berlin took his family to Belgium on July 27, 1914. Before he went, he checked with the German Foreign Secretary.  He asked, ‘There’s a bit of a crisis developing – do you think it’s safe to take my family to Belgium?’  The German Foreign Secretary responded: ‘oh yes, don’t worry, it’ll all be over by next week.'”

Unfortunately, we can see the same complacency today. The New York Times recently described an analysis of campaign advertisements from July 2014. Of the 1,155 ads, only 49, or about 4%, were about any subject even remotely resembling foreign policy.  Despite all that is happening in Iraq and Syria, Ukraine, and in Gaza – on some broad level – what happens beyond the water’s edge is for someone else to care about. 

Thankfully, anyone reading this essay is cut from a slightly different bolt of cloth.  There’s interest in what goes on overseas, or, in seeing the world as it is.  Any reader on War Council is naturally inclined to study the use of force, particularly warm and hot battlefields.  Like storm chasers, often, the closer you get the better you’ll understand the wind patterns and trends.   However, if you can’t get to the precise center (or vortex), what follows are some things I think you might deem important to consider in your observations of Iraq (and Syria/ISIS), Ukraine, and Gaza from afar – so you can better understand the environment we live (and may fight) in.


With respect to Iraq, did the U.S. “win” or “lose” there?  Does that even matter?  Consider the complexity, the many sides, which I’ve referred to previously as a Rubik’s cube war.  ISIS defies definition.  I’ve heard former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morrell refer to the group as a “terrorist army,” typically a contradiction in terms.   

Some suggest that airpower is the solution to stopping ISIS.  But we should start by asking what airpower can do.  Simply put, airpower is great at engagement, but provides no sustained commitment – as Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins has put it, airpower is kind of a one-night stand in that respect.  Moreover, one should ask: when is airpower effective?  Since November 1911, when an Italian pilot dropped three hand grenades out of his monoplane at some Turks in Libya, there have been two general conditions for success in airpower:

            1. If the enemy moves in open terrain; no cover or concealment (i.e. desert).

            2. If the enemy has no air force or useful anti-aircraft weapons to speak of.

Reasonable military judgment would conclude from this basic analysis that we cannot compel ISIS to victory through airpower as they will (for now) be able to take shelter in cities like Mosul.  They can still find sanctuary through the cover that cities and populations provide.  However, airpower can deny them open traffickability and supply routes in between the cities they hold – and that’s very valuable. That forces adaptation in their behavior.  In car racing, there’s an old adage that “you win in the turns.”  Similarly we might be able to break something loose if ISIS handles this strategic adjustment poorly.

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Essay Campaign #16: The Strategic Utility of Space and People

Summer Essay Campaign #16: “The Strategic Utility of Space and People”

To Answer Question #7: “How do geography and demographics impact a nation’s grand and military strategic choices?”

By Kevin Black

There are different means of forcing nations or cultures to submit to one’s will. Aside from indirect means using economic and diplomatic strategies, the most direct alternative is a military strategy.  When each strategy is integrated toward one common goal or approach, a grand strategy exists.   Strategies are not created out of a vacuum as many factors contribute to their development.  (Whether or not they are overtly recognized is another issue.)  At the nation-state level many factors contribute; history, culture, and government are just some examples.  This paper is concerned with geography and demography. 

Geography can be defined as the arrangement of places and physical features given a specific location.  Let’s examine its key elements of size, position, and resources.   Size refers to the physical extent of a nation.  In terms of grand strategy, the Soviet Union leveraged its size as a defensive deterrent against a European invasion during the Cold War.  The Nazi goal of “lebensraum” acted as a political justification for their invasion in 1941.  In military strategy terms, size enabled the Red Army to trade time for space, stretching the Wehrmacht to its brink.

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Essay Campaign #15: Geography, Demographics, and Strategy – Blessing or Curse?

Summer Essay Campaign #15: “Geography, Demographics, and Strategy – A Blessing or a Curse?”

To Answer Question #7: “How do geography and demographics impact a nation’s grand and military strategic choices?”

By David Eisler

Perhaps it seems self-evident that geography and demographics should affect a nation’s grand and military strategies. Mountain ranges, open plains, coastlines, and other topographical masterpieces created by several hundred million years of forces operating on the earth have blessed some nations with natural boundaries and cursed others with fewer resources. Border lines drawn on maps of these features have grouped populations that are sometimes hostile towards each other despite sharing a common nationality. But a deeper look at the influence of these variables reveals a more fundamental question– are geography and demographics permissive relative to a state’s strategic choices, or are they restrictive?

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