The Liddell Hart Memoirs: 1895-1938
Deterrence and Strategy
Like other disciplines less ominous but equally incestuous, the art of military strategy rests upon the interplay of powerful personalities and entrenched ideas. In every generation a new voice rises to challenge orthodox assumptions, revile respected authorities, and present new answers to ancient problems. These iconoclasts are, of course, reviled in their turn, chastised as fool-hardy and unsound by practitioners of the old dogma, confined to the anteroom of power until time has caught up with their ideas, and eventually installed in the new hierarchy about the time that their revolutionary theories have been made obsolete by changing events. This is the fate of most original strategists, just as it is of radical thinkers in general. Small wonder, then, that so few of them ever make the grade while their ideas are still fresh.
Strategists, distressing as some of them may find the thought, are very much like academicians in their pre-occupation with continuity, their hesitation to challenge the accepted wisdom, and their propensity to work within the existing tradition. There are good reasons for this. In the past, strategists have either been military officers themselves—a genre notoriously loath to rock the hierarchical boat—or ex-military civilians whose impact depended upon their ability to influence the military mind. Today, the focus has changed somewhat. Instead of being like academicians, strategists usually are academicians, feeding theories into computers and conducting mock battles in the seminar room. Clausewitz has been succeeded by Herman Kahn, Foch by Tom Schelling. The new-style strategist no longer, like Napoleon, hammers out his theories during sleepless nights on the battlefield, but constructs “scenarios” in which hypothetical opponents engage in various levels of violence over unstated political objectives. If the Second World War was the last of the blackboard wars, the cold war is the first of the computer wars. It marks the ascendancy of science over tactics.
TODAY, as a result of the terrible power unleashed by the atom, we are returning to a rather more flexible and subtle theory of warfare than the kind conducted with such disastrous effects during the last two European wars. The baleful influence of the Clausewitz school—which defined victory as the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, and thereby provided the rationale for the mindless slaughter of trench warfare during the First World War—has now been replaced by a far broader concept. Instead of wars of attrition where ignorant armies clash by night with no other purpose than to destroy one another, nations now seek to achieve their political ambitions by a limited and discriminating use of force. The concept of victory itself has changed. It is no longer the physical obliteration of the enemy’s army (which France and Britain achieved in 1914-18 only by the near-obliteration of their own), but to persuade the enemy that further resistance is undesirable. It is now generally accepted, in the words of the British strategist, B. H. Liddell Hart, that “the aim of a nation in war is to …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.