Military Friction and/or Asymmetry

Ollie Garchy

Active member
Military Friction and/or Asymmetry: The US War on Terror

I want to argue that combat friction and/or asymmetry represents the most important complicating factor in war, and place far less emphasis on (a) Underestimating Enemy, (b) Unfit Leaders, (c) Planning Disasters, (d) Intelligence Blunders, and (e) Political Influence. I would also like to make an argument concerning why the United States is losing the war on terror, and perhaps get some ideas on how the US can win without retreating to fortress America.

I originally wrote this response for another thread dealing with "blunders and the blunderers". I think that it is actually more appropriate to post this stuff in a new thread. It looks like that thread is going to run in the usual "the losers were stupid" direction. No disrespect is intended.

Sorry, but the categories listed above are flawed. A military organization is not necessarily responsible for the political decisions that lead the soldiers to difficult wars. As in the case of Napoleon's Russian campaign or the current American military operations in Iraq, "poor" military results were a product of political decision-making (that invariably lead to the conclusion I make below). In both cases, the enemy fought (or is fighting) asymetrically for the simple reason that they had (have) no other choice. Napoleon and Rumsfeld (sorry for the comparison) had no reason to think that military operations would not unfold in their favour. After the fact, both looked (look) incredibly stupid. Borodino-Moscow and the capture of Baghdad were solid military victories. The problem is that subsequent "failures" takes on the veneer of the "blunderer" and the critics take over.

As it stands, these categories are used for a reason. They can be mobilized in the following manner: the political outcome of war determines the "blunderer" from the "genius". But nobody in their right mind would denigrate Napoleon or the US military. Think about Vietnam, for example. There are historical moments when an exceptional military organization loses. Was that organization therefore composed of "blunderers". No way. Napoleon and his commmanders were brilliant beyond description. The same for the US in Vietnam. They made no really dreadful mistakes in their operations and it is a banality to point out that certain things could have been done better.

I can only say one thing: "friction" or operational asymmetry (not to be confused with military force asymmetry). "Strategy, Luttwak points outs, involves actual or possible armed conflict between thinking humans and thus is dominated by a paradoxical logic based on the coming together and even the reversal of opposites. What appears best, more effective, or most efficient, in other words, often is not". You cannot with any precision forecast how an enemy will react. All planning, intelligence assessments, etc. are therefore only rough estimates or guides. All war plans can be tossed into the garbage once the guns start firing...and then the frictions of combat take over.

In my opinion, all of the usual categories mask one basic military determinant: unless one side is hopelessly outclassed in terms of technology or education, all military success or failure can be understood in terms of troop strength. Napoleon ran out of men. The US army cried out for more soldiers in Vietnam and is currently doing the same. Do not forget one thing, though. A military on the offensive can alter troop strength ratios by capturing enemy soldiers and therefore creating the conditions for eventual victory. Hitler's generals did so against France in 1940. Hitler tried to do the same in Russia and almost succeeded. What counts is killing the enemy...the old American concept of war of annihilation. Bring the enemy to battle and blow him to bits.

But what do you do when the enemy retreats and will not commit? How do we stop partisan or guerilla operations? How do we deal with this modern (and historical) friction? [Remember that Napoleon had to deal with guerilla tactics in Spain...the English in North America, etc.]
Ollie Garchy said:
In my opinion, all of the usual categories mask one basic military determinant: unless one side is hopelessly outclassed in terms of technology or education, all military success or failure can be understood in terms of troop strength.
Correct Ollie. After all, the main reason why the Soviet Union won 'The Great Patriotic War' was due to them having more fighting men than Germany. This is the bottom line, but I certainly wouldn't dismiss other factors because they do have an important impact. Germany, with the application of the correct operational doctrine, might have negated the troop strength held by the USSR. The same USSR almost cut their own throat by disregarding trustworthy intelligence from several unrelated sources.

This brings to my next observation which is obvious in the extreme but nonetheless I will voice it. That there is no large-scale military operation that is free from political considerations. "War is merely the continuation of politics, by other means", so wrote Clausewitz. Whilst he himself may not have intended that statement to be taken so literally it is accurate in any case. The problems usually occur when there is overlap of responsiblities and actions between the politicians and the generals. This can be seen most clearly by observing Hitler directly influencing military plans for purely political reasons as he did on several occasions in WW2.

Ollie Garchy said:
But what do you do when the enemy retreats and will not commit? How do we stop partisan or guerilla operations? How do we deal with this modern (and historical) friction? [Remember that Napoleon had to deal with guerilla tactics in Spain...the English in North America, etc.]
It is very difficult without extreme measures, none of which would be remotely acceptable or palatable in the modern era. There are many reasons for the presence of guerillas and their reasons for resistance must be understood. Once they are understood then some action can be taken to either change conditions that are palatable to them or to make decisions to wipe them out. Gaining the acceptance of the majority of the population is a must for any occupying army and the Romans were past masters at this.

The problem for the US is complicated by that multi-headed beast called religion and by the fact that Iraq is a country drawn across political and not ethnic/religious boundaries. It is further complicated by the fact the US Coalition (read US/UK) is trying to impose democracy on a country that has never known such a notion. Is it really our place to impose our own systems on ideological and culturally different peoples? Does democracy even work as intended, given that the current US President was elected by less than 50% of his own citizens. A popular King would surely gain more of the vote.
I am certainly in agreement with Clausewitz. War is always only an adjunct of political policy. Warfare independent of politicians is therefore unthinkable in the extreme sense of the word.

It is however almost an absurdity to blame military officers for failing to fulfill the goals set by the politicians. The reverse is also true. A politician's desire for war is basically an independent factor that should not be confused with military planning. Gulf War II is a good example. Bush (Rumsfeld) obviously consulted the Pentagon prior to military operations. According to what I have heard, no American general voiced any disagreement with the nature of the operation. Why? It is normally not the business of the military to plan for long-term or sustained asymmetrical operations that are somewhere between political and military realms. The Pentagon planned for the type of operations that it knows and does best. The Americans blew the Iraqi military to bits. But the politicians are the ones who have to sort out the post-combat mess. I have questioned the civil-military capabilities of the US military before, and I will do it again. Are they however responsible for what might end up as Vietnam II? No, Bush is...and not because he is theoretically supreme commander of the military.

[Personally, I would argue that the Bush/Rumsfeld hydra is responsible. Ignoring the State Department when led by Powell, Bush turned the American foreign office into a puppet whose only purpose is to make unilateral American actions somehow palatable for world consumption. Bush's brazen disregard for world opinion does more than just fuel the current Jihad. Most countries involved in the war on terror are trying to jump ship.]

Turning to Nazi-Germany's invasion of Russia, we see a curious relationship with Vietnam (I do not want to take this comparison too far). Permit me to be totally simplistic. Germany failed because the Wehrmacht could not (1) successively bring the Red Army to battle under positive conditions and (2) because the Soviet hinterland remained basically unscathed in the sense that it could provide the resources needed to maintain the military. Remember that the Soviets withdrew further and further into their own space and concentrated their forces in the cities to deprive the Germans of mobility. The same situation existed in North Vietnam -- with the notable exception that the B-52s turned Hanoi and other cities into rubble heaps. In terms of Iraq, the Americans are unable to stop the flow of men and resources from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim states. In Iraq, the guerillas are simply moving away from US troops and striking at "soft" targets instead. The US cannot win such a war using conventional means. Nor could Germany during WWII but for very different reasons.

The US military has to jettison old conceptions in order to achieve final victory -- a political peace in western interests. What does this mean? Actually, I am not really sure. I only know that the old ideas do not work. Counter-insurgency or pacification will always fail, as will the attempt to bring the enemy to battle under favourable conditions. The guerillas simply do not have to engage. I will also discount the potential success of political initiatives like vying for the allegiance of the domestic population. I will furthermore discount the potential success of raising a mercenary army to wage war against the guerillas. These traditional policies failed in WWII, Vietnam and will fail in Iraq. (When have they ever worked?). You cannot kill enough of the enemy and you cannot destroy his limited power base. The Israelis have built a wall. Maybe the Americans should do the same -- it would be a big wall.

A couple of ways to combat guerilla tactics: [These are really crude suggestions and it has to be stated that a guerilla war can be avoided in the first place if a puppet government is created BEFORE invasion and given wide coercive power IMMEDIATELY afterwards]

(1) Political Decentralization: Working from the assumption that centralized puppet governments achieve nothing, why not do the opposite? How about breaking up Iraq into hundreds of small semi-autonomous municipalities? Such an policy would work against the image of a puppet government by handing power to the people and removing a centralized target. The Americans have done this in the past. This policy characterized Allied occupation policy in Germany after WWII. The central points: do not focus guerilla actions against one administration and get the people involved in small fry stuff.

(2) Divide & Conquer: Instead of promoting domestic "peace", the occupation authority should "encourage" traditional regional rivalries and normal chauvinism -- especially racial, religious and political hatreds. A civil war? Sure. Guerilla forces try for the same goal and then collect all of this energy and use it against the centralized puppet regime. Why not a reversal? An occupation authority should divide and weaken the guerillas themselves. A Sunni-Shiite conflict would solve many American problems by redirecting resources and manpower into a massive civil war. If such duplicitous actions are unacceptable, the occupation authorities can still encourage the creation of hundreds of political parties, factions, lobby groups, etc. and buy them off one at a time. The central points: get minds off of the occupation and divide the guerillas themselves.