The shades of B.H. Liddell Hart, H.L. Mencken, and Friar William of Ockham walked into the celestial Pen & Sword Pub. Their usual bartender set up their usual drinks and, business being slow that night, lingered to join his friends’ conversation.

“Policy and grand strategy should be logical,” said William, “but it rarely seems to be so. The goal should be obvious, and the path to that goal should be the shortest.”

“Not necessarily,” said Hart. “The most direct approach provokes combat, which may make success too expensive. The perfection of strategy would be, therefore, to produce a decision without any serious fighting. In the case of a state that is seeking, not conquest, but the maintenance of its security, the aim is fulfilled if the threat is removed—if the enemy is led to abandon his purpose.”

Mencken added, “Besides, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. The problem is that people too rarely behave or decide intelligently. Every battle in recorded history appears as a series of almost incredible blunders and imbecilities—always, at least, on one side, and usually, on both. One marvels . . . that any major engagement was ever won. Even the greatest generals—for example, Bonaparte—walk idiotically into palpable traps, and waste thousands of lives getting themselves out. . . . They seem to be congenitally incapable of reasoning clearly, even when all the facts are before them. And at the enterprise of unearthing those facts they show only the gross and pathetic ineptitude of a second-rate lawyer or a third-rate pedagogue.”

“Although you reflexively criticize almost everything and everybody, Mencken,” interjected the bartender, “isn’t your statement a little over the top? Doesn’t the fog of war play a large part in battles gone wrong, even if almost all of that fog is man-made? Ambiguous orders, poor coordination, inadequate training, fatigue, incompetent logistics, panic, bad staff work, recklessness or indecisiveness, poor reconnaissance, and disobedience are human contributions to confusion and the collapse of plans. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

“Logic should guide the commander through the fog,” said Ockham. “Just find ‘em, fix ‘em and shoot ‘em in the face, and it’s Miller time. Keep things simple.”

The bartender was taken aback. “Why would a venerable friar want to go all medieval on anyone?”

“Well,” said Ockham, “ever since I accused the pope of being a tyrant and he excommunicated me in 1328, I’ve had anger issues. Besides, I ain’t no saint.”

Hart expounded, “From deep study of war, Clausewitz was led to the conclusion that ‘all military action is permeated by intelligent forces and their effects.’ Nevertheless, nations at war have always striven, or been driven by their passions, to disregard the implications of such a conclusion. Instead of applying intelligence, they have chosen to batter their heads against the nearest wall. Clausewitz believed that only a battle will decide the issue, and his unthinking disciples during WWI sought battle at the first opportunity, instead of creating an advantageous opportunity. The mauling method is not only costly, but risks that chance may decide the issue. One should think in terms of paralyzing, not of killing. One man killed is merely one man less, whereas a man unnerved is a highly infectious carrier of fear, capable of spreading an epidemic of panic.”

The bartender added, “Defeat is born in the mind of the commander.”

Hart continued, “The impression made on the mind of the opposing commander can nullify the whole fighting power that his troops possess. And on a still higher plane, psychological pressure on the government of a country may suffice to cancel all the resources at its command—so that the sword drops from the paralysed hand.”

Mencken lit a cigar. “The one permanent emotion of the inferior man,” he began, “is fear—fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants beyond everything else is security. Fear motivates the booboisie, those plain people who can be persuaded to act against their own self-interests by appealing to delusions that satisfy their desire for safety and validate their intuitions and biases. The public . . . ..demands certainties. . . . But there are no certainties. The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true.”

“So,” said the bartender, “delusion ensnares individuals, mobs, and governments.”

“That’s right,” explained Mencken. “The majority of men prefer delusion to truth. It soothes. It is easy to grasp. Above all, it fits more snugly than the truth into a universe of false appearances—of complex and irrational phenomena, defectively grasped.”

Ockham added, “Our intellect does not assent to anything unless we believe it to be true, nor does it dissent from anything unless we believe to be false. Therefore, the contents of the intellect suffice as the proximate cause of every act of judgment.”

“Why are folks who disagree with me so benighted?” mused the bartender. “Beliefs are so stubborn, scholars say, partially because about 40 percent of a person’s leaning to the political left or right is genetic. Those genes influence the person’s leaning toward novelty or reluctance to change.”

Mencken replied, “Politics is not logic. National leaders adapt strategies to feed on the popular fantasy. When the water reaches the upper deck, follow the rats.”

The bartender agreed. “For instance, when McNamara ran the Pentagon, Westmoreland commanded in Vietnam, and Rostow was national security advisor, never had so much intelligence meant so little in forming policy. The conduct of the war was set by a series of lies that the top leaders told one another and the American people. A few short decades later, Vice President Cheney issued his own personal National Intelligence Estimate of Saddam: ‘Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against . . . us.’ Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was easily persuaded that the Iraqis would instantly welcome democracy from a non-Muslim invader. The Afghanistan Papers indicate that US policymakers were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan, yet pursued intensive state-building projects alongside a military campaign that cost over $900 billion—and thousands of lives. The underlying social problems and preexisting political structures continue to drive that conflict.”

“The Cold War was driven by fear of communism,” he continued. “Even if the plain people could not explain communism or socialism, they were things to be feared. Politicians took full advantage of Mencken’s booboisie. Senator McCarthy wrecked many a career by merely tagging someone as ‘communist.’ Even the military used public fear to justify funding. The Pentagon appealed for funds to close the ‘missile gap’ with the communists, even when hard intelligence indicated a US lead. Labor leaders and civil rights activists were labeled ‘communist.’ Once the enemy is demonized, however, the demon is almost immortal. The United States reflexively opposed any self-declared communist government, so Cuba became an implacable enemy and South Vietnam was lost.”

“So,” asked Ockham, “how does understanding of the power of fear and lure of delusion avoid the battering of military heads against walls?”

The bartender replied, “Hart’s indirect approach is like fencing compared to bludgeoning. It achieves the strategic goals with a minimum of expenditure. First, determine the source of the conflict—economic or social differences. Then, decide if only combat will resolve it forever: Are we fighting the symptom or the disease? Is our strategic objective to win or not to lose? Is the source of friendly and enemy combat power material or psychological?”

“Tactical and even operational success requires resolution, but strategically, folding one’s hand is an option,” declared Hart. “Doves can be pragmatic when they avoid mad persistence in the face of defeat. The enemy may have an achievable political objective in a confrontation where we do not. ‘That they did not die in vain’ is not a rational justification for continued waste when the odds are always wrong.”

He then observed, “It is almost a miracle that Nazi Germany held out for so long with shrinking resources. Its resolve was greatly helped by the forbidding nature of the Allies’ demand for ‘unconditional surrender’—which was a too direct approach to grand strategy.”

“In most campaigns,” Hart continued, “the dislocation of the enemy’s psychological and physical balance has been the vital prelude to a successful attempt at his overthrow. Keep the enemy on the horns of a dilemma—maintain credible options so that he will divide his resources and attention to guard against each. After the failure of the Arnhem gamble to exploit Allied mobility, the Allies built up resources for assaults along predictable corridors of approach across the Rhine. Again, a too direct approach.”

Then the bartender cautioned, “The indirect approach demands steady strategic discipline and close coordination. You must not commit to a course of action prematurely. Resources are continually consumed, including time and popular support. The commander and strategist must be rock steady—his psychological enemies are fear and self-delusion.”

Hart spoke up again. “Psychological dislocation fundamentally springs from a sense of being trapped. To fully understand the relative minds and natures of the combatants, military organizations must seek out the most difficult kind of intelligence—knowledge of themselves.”

The bartender observed, “Understanding the enemy is difficult across cultural divides. He may not behave in expected ways. What is a self-evident truth to one man, may not be at all self-evident to a foreigner. Common sense is not held in common.”

Hart said, “Commanders and their staffs weigh the odds of success among available courses of action.”

“Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” said Ockham. “When you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.”

“The simplest course is too predictable. It plays into the enemy’s expectations and preparations,” replied Hart. “Planning begins with assumptions, and military intelligence turns those assumptions into facts, and facts should drive decisions.”

“That sounds logical,” said Ockham. “And the explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.”

“Except that those assumptions and deductions are distorted by emotion,” said Mencken. “The emotion-driven leader wants an answer that confirms his hopes, and hope is a pathological belief in the occurrence of the impossible.”

The bartender wondered, “Is the careful commander wisely wary or mentally paralyzed? Should he make a quick and possibly reckless decision? Will fear of failure and loss of prestige, position, or even personal safety freeze his brain? He may wallow in over-thinking.”

“If you don’t think too good, don’t think too much,” Ockham interjected.

The bartender continued, “Without relevant facts, the commander is just guessing, which allows full play of biases and delusions—if he guesses correctly, he is praised as lucky. What about the staff? Shouldn’t they have the mandate to intervene and save the leader from himself?”

Hart replied, “It is very difficult for a subordinate to successfully escape the delusions and deep fears of the top leader, as Hitler’s staff can attest. An autocrat always fears for his life.”

Mencken re-lit his cigar. “Decency, self-restraint, the sense of justice, courage,” he said. “These virtues belong to a small minority of men. This minority seldom runs amok. Its most distinguishing character, in truth, is its resistance to all running amok. That’s why I liked Calvin Coolidge; he had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.”

“Shouldn’t education instill the habit of critical thinking in leaders, and training provide the tools to apply it?” asked Ockham.

Mencken replied, “The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amid appearances, but there is no qualifying entrance exam for high office. Anyway, I learned the valuable lesson that sharp wits can lurk in unpolished skulls.”

The bartender said, “It seems that very few commanders are consistently successful over time. There are changes in health, enemy, resources, and subordinates. Napoleon did not have his former chief of staff at Waterloo, and Lee did not have Jackson at Gettysburg. Both Bonaparte and Lee may have been ill during those battles. A general’s qualities may be effective in some circumstances, and mismatched in others. McClellan was very good at organizing and training, but he was an unsteady battle commander.”

Mencken added, “Don’t get me started on U.S. Grant. Without John A. Rawlins, who essentially shared command, Grant was just not the same man.”

Ockham asked, “Shouldn’t computer-assisted decision making and artificial intelligence be the epitome of rational action? Data goes in, the machine analyzes it according to pre-set algorithms, and the right answer pops out like a Magic 8-Ball.”

“But, AI produces the most logical plan based on assumed logical reactions,” Hart responded. “If the enemy reverse engineers our algorithms, he could predict our probable course of action, even if it is seemingly indirect. If the enemy cheats the rules, do the algorithms work? Unless the commander is merely a wind-up toy, he must distinctly decide to trust the source of the data and accept the output, which is easy if it matches his gut feelings. Otherwise, he rejects that reality and substitutes one of his own.”

The bartender said, “The intelligence assessment process includes experts who are often the commercial or bureaucratic entities that benefit from the most alarming projections being accepted as reality. The experts cannot be disregarded, but source bias must be considered.”

Hart replied, “Even when AI reveals the enemy’s capabilities, the commander must be willing to adjust organization, tactics, and strategy effectively. That is why the US Navy was ineffective against the U-boats until 1943.

The bartender, seeing that it was time to close, announced, “Let us conclude, my friends, that an effective strategic leader must have steely-eyed self-awareness. The strategist must be quick to perceive change, adapt to it, and exploit it. The strategic leader must shape the future by courageously championing his decision, even against popular opinion. Here’s your bill.”

“Divide it into three equal parts,” said Ockham, “and I will pay with cash.”

Mencken objected. “Simple, but wrong. That would be unfair because our drinks were not equally priced.”

“Put it on our credit tabs for later,” said Hart.


Michael Symanski is a retired US Army major general, commanded at all levels through two stars, and served in the Department of the Army G-3/5/7. After retirement, he was a senior mentor to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. He has an MA in history from the University of Illinois.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Billie Grace Ward