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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Can a Modern Military Destroy People But Not Control Them?

M1 Abrams Military
M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In the wake of Russia’s misadventure in Ukraine and the United States’ and NATO’s likewise disastrous pullout from Afghanistan, it’s worth speculating: is it possible that militaries can destroy things, devastate territory, and kill people but not control them? It’s starting to look that way. Ultramodern armed forces boast unprecedented destructive potential, manifest in long-range precision-guided arms, advanced sensors, stealth technology, and on and on.

And yet they commonly flounder when asked to control sizable swathes of geographic space. It may be that a unit of combat power has come to cost too much for them to purchase enough units to do the job.

Recent advances may be the stuff of a revolution in military affairs, a combination of new technology, doctrine, and operational and tactical methods that transforms the face of battle. This is seductive. But revolutionary times could portend a dark future. If military forces’ reach has come to exceed their grasp, commanders and their political masters may confront two unpalatable alternatives. Namely, they can abandon their operational and strategic goals, or they can bludgeon the enemy—including, potentially, the enemy populace, as in Mariupol and other urban centers—with brute force in hopes of sapping its morale and cowing it into capitulation.

The former seems to have been NATO’s fate in Afghanistan, while Russia’s assaults on urban areas in Ukraine seem to fall into the latter category. Both combatants outmatched their foes in top-end weaponry; neither wielded control.

Or at least that’s what Admiral J. C. Wylie might say were he among the living today. In his treatise on Military Strategy, Wylie declares that the paramount purpose of military strategy is to exert control—control of turf, things, or populations. Destruction is sometimes necessary but does not constitute an end in itself. He reprimands aviators in particular for succumbing to the fallacy of assuming that the ability to destroy something from the air is the same as controlling it.

Not so, says Wylie. Air forces come and go; they have a hard time maintaining a constant presence in geographic space commanders want to control. They are also remote from events on the ground, no matter how advanced their sensors may be. Even devastating aerial bombardment, consequently, does not give air commanders the ability to dictate what happens on the ground below on a day-in, day-out basis. That being the case, Wylie proclaims that the arbiter of control is the “man on the scene with a gun.” By that, he means soldiers, marines, or lawmen deployed in sufficient numbers and toting firepower sufficient to exercise control and thus fulfill the goals of military strategy.

Without that superiority in mass, an armed force stands to fall short of its goals. After all, as planners say, strategy and “operational art” are about staging more combat power at the right place at the right time, and keeping it there for as long as it takes to prevail in a trial of arms. That’s a long time when trying to control large areas inhabited by a sullen populace. But mass—the number of people, platforms, and armaments making up a force—often comes up on the losing ends when it runs afoul of quality in force planning and budgeteering. That is, the tendency among military professionals, civilian officials, and lawmakers is to procure the latest shiny bauble in small numbers rather than unglamorous, lower-tech implements in bulk.

But this is not about taking air-power advocates to task. Today Wylie would doubtless extend his critique to encompass navies, which can rain ordnance on shore targets from long distances but, like their skyfaring brethren, cannot regulate events on the ground despite the impressive capacity for destruction. Nor would Wylie exempt ground forces from criticism. They too would fail his test if soldiers or marines were too few in numbers and capability to exercise control for long enough to achieve the strategic goals for which political leaders launched the expedition.

At fault, of course, is the expense of fielding ultramodern forces. Resources are finite for even the most lavishly funded military. Each generation of weaponry tends to cost more than the last, eating up a larger and larger share of the defense budget. Labor costs likewise consume a bigger piece of the total for any contender devoted to the well-being of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. The result is that the armed services can afford fewer people, platforms, and armaments as each unit of battle strength costs more.

Force structure suffers, and mass with it. Each man on the scene may be equipped with an increasingly lethal gun, but there are fewer soldiers to brandish fewer guns. Expeditionary forces are less and less equal to their mission. At some tipping point a force no longer has the heft to accomplish its goals. The pattern in recent conflicts—Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq—suggests that great-power armed forces may have passed that tipping point. Wylie might urge senior leaders to acknowledge that they have a problem, and in so doing to take the first step toward a solution.

What might that solution be? In general terms, a contestant fielding inadequate mass can expand its defense budget to pay for additional manpower and implements. It can rebalance toward a lower-tech force, and accept the risk that comes from being (relatively) technologically backward. It can forego military and thus political aims that lie beyond its means. Or the leadership can exercise fresh self-discipline, shedding lesser commitments to husband resources for what matters most. After all, aligning ends with means—and the reverse—is what strategy is all about.

So take note, denizens of Moscow, Washington, and Beijing. You have some pondering to do.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Alex

    April 1, 2022 at 7:20 pm

    On the one hand – evil Russia. On the other hand – a disaster for the United States. Double standards from bastards.

  2. Ben d'Mydogtags

    April 1, 2022 at 9:30 pm

    Technology is a combat multiplier. But any sized multiplier times zero is still zero. As Stalin reputedly said “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

  3. David Chang

    April 2, 2022 at 1:14 am

    People should not control people with or by weapon, and all people should confess sin to God for preventing crime.

  4. Jen

    April 2, 2022 at 11:39 pm

    Thank you for writing this piece. The analysis is incredibly insightful. It is unclear from who is “winning”. I never thought to ask who is in control. That question also raises questions around timing.

    The Russians may be winning and but their ability to control the country is likely unsustainable. With that understanding, we must stop the destruction of the infrastructure. The Ukrainians seem to be a pawn in a long battle between the US and China. Putin is no dope but he never anticipated the social media aspect of the war and that America would lead from the back to help Ukraine.

    We live in a weird world. Most people in America do not understand history and our values are evolving. People are also fatigued coming out of a pandemic. The Biden administration and the weak West European politicians would do the world some good to explain why Ukraine matters strategically and go to the Congresses and Parliaments to bring this to a finish asap

    Key to get the Ukrainians home soon and with a country to come back to

  5. Seamus

    April 12, 2022 at 8:59 am

    Good perspective on something that could be called the “Irish veto”. Force in its many forms (laws, bullies, war) can only go so far to change the people’s behavior.

  6. RC

    April 15, 2022 at 3:51 pm

    The Afghans weren’t worth defending. If they were as brave as the Ukrainians, they would never have fallen to the Taliban. The Taliban were quite brave and resolute at killing young school girls, raping young boys as well as schtupping goats. 2,500 American troops kept this bestial hoard back or severely slowed their progress, barely enough to fill a small football stadium. However, we initially won that war with the help of a significant number of Afghans who supported us.

    So what happened?

    The United States military industrial complex crapped out; they had made their money supplying the war, but the war ended too soon, so they attacked Iraq, a big mistake. The United States preferred to send money to the arms manufacturers rather than build enough schools and educate the next generation. As a result, poor people — and that’s most of them– had to send them to madrassas in Pakistan, where they were basically indoctrinated in the same bullshit that their great grandparents were. They had more hope under the brutal Russians.

    Ask young Japanese if they would be willing to commit suicide for the Emperor–they would laugh at you. Ask young Afghans if they would commit suicide for Allah, and they would line up for the privilege. Education, something that works and something that the upper class

    But, education costs money and Afghanistan would still have to have a foreign military presence for a few generations.

    Can we change culture?

    Yes, it has been happening since the beginning of civilization; if it didn’t, most of us would be primitive tribal people, painting ourselves blue, worshiping trees, and howling at the moon. But, the U.S. has this sacrosanct view or religion and believes that they should allow it an un-taxed free reign even if it considers outsiders infidels who should be punished or killed. Even if it thinks that women should be imprisoned at home and remain illiterate (probably because that is what the fundamentalist U.S. Taliban would like to do here.)

    But, education and rehabilitation of a wounded society costs money, money not going into the military industrial complex, money the upper class of the U.S. does not wish to be taxed for, especially when they are afraid that they would have to pay their fair share of the cost of education in their own country. Proper education and democracy is a threat to upper class tyrants everywhere.

  7. Jacksonian Libertarian

    April 25, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    It’s said that if 1% of a population is willing to fight the government, a revolution will be successful.

    This fact defines the limits of controlling populations, it cannot be done with military means, and must be done politically or not at all.

    Authoritarian Governments spend most of their efforts oppressing their people and rooting out disloyalty. They know that if that 1% ever jells they will be ruthlessly exterminated by their own enraged subjects.

    Controlling people is like herding cats, the carrot and the stick can influence them, but their nature prevents any absolute control.

  8. Alex

    April 26, 2022 at 1:30 am

    The West failed to turn much of the world against Russia after the military operation in Ukraine began, columnist Howard French wrote in an article for Foreign Policy magazine.
    According to him, many states did not support sanctions against Moscow, including such large countries as India and China.

    “In fact, when counting the population of these countries, it becomes clear that the states representing the majority of humanity have not taken a position in this conflict, seeing in it the familiar echoes of the former rivalry between East and West,” said French.
    According to the observer, the international political system that took shape at the beginning of the twentieth century from the very beginning gave the countries of the “third world” the status of second-class states. As an example, he cited the colonization of Africa by European countries.

    “It was the work of the enslaved millions of people who grew sugar and cotton in huge quantities, cleared the land and did all other unpaid work that made the American colonies profitable for Europe, and the so-called “Old World” new and rich,” the author emphasized.

    French urged not to ignore the heightened sense of justice among the former colonized peoples.

  9. Alex

    April 27, 2022 at 6:47 am

    If someone wants to know the truth about the civil war in the Donbass, about all the atrocities of the Bandera clean-ups and why Russia was forced to intervene, then it is better to watch films by independent journalists. There are already many such journalists who fight for truth and freedom. For example, a documentary by the German journalist Wilhelm Domcke-Schulz.

    A documentary film about the war crimes of the Bandera Nazis during the period of Russia’s special military operation to denazify and demilitarize Ukraine is in production. It will be a real information bomb, where the war crimes of Bandera Nazis will be shown and proved.

    The documentary “Remember Odessa” tells how the Bandera Nazis burned Ukrainians alive and other heinous war crimes.

    The documentary “To Live and Die in Donbass” tries to fill this gaping information gap in the West. He looks into the tormented soul of the inhabitants of Donbass, who really want only one thing – to live self-determining according to their own rules and values. Not submitting to foreign forces and ideologies.

    In the east of Ukraine, in the Donbass, a war has been raging since the beginning of 2014. A civil war that claimed more than 15,000 lives over the years, including several hundred children. They had to die, because the national-fascist coup government in Kyiv, funded by the West, trained and militarily heavily armed, would not tolerate any resistance to their illegitimate rule, no matter the cost.

    Therefore, in April 2014, the putschists deployed the Ukrainian army, supported by dozens of right-wing extremist volunteer battalions, and have since bombed city centers, residential areas, schools, hospitals and infrastructure, killing civilians.

    This perennial crime has gone completely unnoticed by the Western public. Politicians and the media avoid this topic and reports about how the devil pours holy water. Because a public discussion about the crimes of the Ukrainian regime would reveal only one thing – with what mass murderers and terrorists the so-called “west of values” in Ukraine has a common language, if only to defend their goals and interests.

  10. CK

    April 28, 2022 at 7:01 pm

    It’s hilarious to think Alex doesn’t even realise everything he says has the opposite effect of what he means.

    When I meet or see people like Alex, I truly wonder how we ever got so far. Science, medicine, being in space. Doesn’t feel possible if ever one person of our race can be that stupid.

    The imbecile can’t even post something new on a new day, same old recycling, different garbage for a different day, just like his nation, reliving their WW2 hits.

    It gives me great joy to remember every single nation that has lived in the past has indeed been consigned to it, and Russia is boarding that train to history with gusto.

    Do svidaniya komrades!

  11. Alex

    May 1, 2022 at 10:48 am

    I am sure that reasonable people will agree with me: only a flawed, poor, uneducated Bandera Nazi from a troll factory will run after a person all over the site and write him psychiatric nonsense that a person does not read.

    Squeals, hysteria, runs out of bile like the last scum. Now you see the real face of the Bandera bastard – a flawed, impoverished, uneducated cattle (bydlo). I hope now the whole world understands why we Poles call Bandera Nazis cattle (bydlo).

    Glory to the Ukrainians of Donbass and all real Ukrainians! Death to Bandera Nazi bydlo.

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