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 subdue the enemy’s will to resist, with the least possible human and economic loss to itself.” War of attrition, as refined with such horrible results in the First World War, has given way to war of intimidation. In current theories of strategy the psychological element of warfare is at least as important as the military element.
Armies locked in combat are just one element of war. They are not the whole thing, and not necessarily even the most important thing. Today we take this for granted, and indeed the whole theory of deterrence is based upon the belief that military strategy can be conducted without engaging in direct battle. We have come so far from the theories in vogue during the nineteenth century and applied so cataclysmically during the First World War, that we have turned Clausewitz on his head. Instead of war being “the carrying out of diplomacy by other means,” it is now diplomacy (or nuclear diplomacy, if you will) which is the carrying out of war by other means. Clausewitz sought to break the morale of the enemy by military victory on the battlefield; today, according to General André Beaufre, one of the most lucid and intelligent of the contemporary strategists, victory is achieved by “exploiting a situation resulting in sufficient moral disintegration of the enemy to cause him to accept the conditions it is desired to impose on him.” From the confrontation of opposing armies we have swung over to a totally different concept: the dialectic of opposing wills. Where nations once sought to bludgeon their enemies, they now prefer to demoralize them. Brute force has taken a back seat to psychology, and nations now use the threat of military force to achieve the political objectives they would once have been able to obtain only by the use of such force. The war of nerves has succeeded the Blitzkreig. Strategy is no longer a push-button to unleash a holocaust, but a keyboard on which various levels of intimidation are combined with selective use of force in order to achieve the desired psychological result. The Cuban missile crisis is the true successor to the trench warfare of the First World War—and a dramatic symbol of how far we have come from the theories Foch inherited from Napoleon.
THIS NEW STRATEGY of warfare seems natural to us. But if we take it for granted, it is in large part because of the groundwork laid down with such clarity and persistence over the past forty years by B. H. Liddell Hart. The most important and original military thinker to have come out of the First World War, Liddell Hart has had a profound influence not only upon the theory, but upon the practice of warfare. His ideas of mobile warfare, centering around the tank and the airplane, which were so long ignored in his own country, were taken up enthusiastically by the German generals and used with devastating effect during the Second World War. Liddell Hart was above all a revisionist. He wanted to correct what he believed to be the errors of the First World War. Like many other young officers, he was horrified by the waste and the futility of trench warfare. He sought to break through the deadlock of land armies locked in massive battle, and found this breakthrough in the tactics of mobile warfare. Using the tank as the instrument of what he called the expanding torrent method, he developed a complete theory of tactics which had a powerful influence on military thinking ever since. In addition he developed a new concept of strategy resting upon the deception of the enemy and the use of non-military means to achieve political ends. It is in this realm, even more than in the field of tactics, that his influence has been so important, for he was the forerunner of the theories which have been explored with such chilly organizational precision by the RAND Corporation and similar institutes for strategic studies. Liddell Hart, it can be said, did not so much innovate a theory of strategy as return to earlier theories, such as those practiced by Alexander and Scipio, in seeking to overcome the enemy’s will to resist without first destroying the mass of his army. “The destruction of the enemy’s armed forces,” he wrote in 1925
is but a means—and not necessarily an inevitable or infallible one—to the attainment of the real objective. It is clearly not, as is so often claimed, the sole, true objective in war…our goal in war can only be attained by the subjugation of the opposing will. All acts, such as defeat in the field, propaganda, blockade, diplomacy, or attack on the centers of government and population, are seen to be but means to that end …
In turning the military mind away from the rigid formulas of Clausewitz’s followers, he brought a new element of flexibility, and a new element of instability, into the art of warfare. Military strategy has never been the same since, and the impact of Liddell Hart is perhaps more powerful today than it was in the 1920s and 1930s when his theories were first being developed.
While he achieved fame at a very early age, and had a predominant influence upon the generation of strategists who succeeded him, Liddell Hart’s career was not an entirely successful one. He was bitterly resisted by the British General Staff, and never more so than just before the Second World War when he became adviser to Hore-Belisha, the Secretary of State for War. By the time he reached a position of influence he had revised his own thinking to emphasize the defense over the offensive. His advice was taken, and proved to be disastrous against the Germans who were employing earlier Liddell Hart tactics of mobile warfare. But the tactical errors of the late 1930s fade to unimportance as compared to the genius of Liddell Hart as a strategist of indirect warfare. This first volume of his Memoirs, covering the years from his birth in 1895 to the end of the phony peace in 1938, offer a rich, informative, and frequently witty insight into the career of a man whose name is known to few, but whose influence is felt by all of us who live in an age when teeth-bared confrontation has given way to the subtle blackmail of nuclear deterrence.
OF ALL THE DISCIPLES of Liddell Hart, none has been more outspoken in his appreciation than General André Beaufre, whose new book, Deterrence and Strategy, is dedicated to the master—who in turn wrote the preface to the General’s earlier book, An Introduction to Strategy. The mutual appreciations of master and disciple should not, however, discourage the reader, for General Beaufre is no whispering acolyte dressing up borrowed British theories in new French couture. On the contrary, he is an original strategist in his own right, and his new book on nuclear deterrence, which follows close on the heels of last year’s essay on strategy, is an important contribution to an evolving, highly perilous, and gravely misunderstood art. A clear thinker with an admirably sharp and uncluttered literary style, ably translated by Major-General R. H. Barry, General Beaufre offers an impressive analysis of the new strategy of deterrence which has evolved from nuclear weapons. This is a slim volume, but an extremely meaty one, which makes a notable contribution to its field, and which offers even the uninitiated reader a high-level, but jargon-free, analysis of the precarious balance on which the policy of deterrence currently rests. Praeger is to be congratulated for making it available to the English-speaking reader, but deserves no applause at all for charging $6.95 for a 174-page book—unless they are trying to apply the principles of deterrence to book-buying.
Those who breach the price barrier, however, will find their labors rewarded, for this is an original study which charts new, and rather disturbing, ground in the field of nuclear deterrence. General Beaufre, who is now director of the Institut Français d’Etudes Stratégiques, a kind of French RAND, maintains that nuclear weapons are a powerful stabilizer in international affairs, and that “it is the risk of nuclear conflict which keeps the peace so stable.” This will come as a surprise and perhaps a shock to most readers, but General Beaufre makes a powerful case for his thesis. According to him, nuclear weapons have introduced an entirely new factor into military strategy; instead of a strategy of potential threat, we moved to a strategy of deterrence. The purpose of deterrence is, unlike former strategies, not to defeat the enemy, but to prevent him from taking the decision to use armed force. Nuclear weapons to his mind—and here he parts company with a good many American strategists—are not for defense, but for deterrence only. But deterrence, in order to be effective, depends upon the threat that nuclear weapons will be used, for “if no one fears that someone else will fire first, there is no nuclear deterrence.” Thus, “the disappearance of nuclear deterrence would be a frightful catastrophe…for we should then lose the benefit of the stability created by the atom in our rapidly evolving world.” Impelled by this line of reasoning, General Beaufre thus sees the current nuclear stability between America and Russia as being inherently dangerous—because it opens the temptation to violence below the nuclear threshold—and believes it necessary to re-establish a certain nuclear instability. His remedy: the creation of independent nuclear forces in such places as western Europe and China.
HAVING defined a certain amount of nuclear proliferation as basically healthy, General Beaufre declares it to be “nothing less than a law” that “a conventional armaments race produces instability, whereas a nuclear armaments race produces stability.” This may be hard going for most American strategists, but General Beaufre sees the danger of nuclear war between the great powers as virtually nil, and therefore is interested in using nuclear weapons to deter major conventional conflicts as well. “In the nuclear world,” he declares in a key passage, “peace and war have lost their traditional meaning because nuclear war has become unthinkable and peace is nothing but the permanent interplay of deterrence. It is for this reason that fears about independent nuclear forces possibly triggering off nuclear war are totally unrealistic. Such forces reinforce deterrence instead of reducing its effectiveness.” The remedy for the current woes within the Atlantic alliance, which he sees as based upon America’s monopoly over nuclear control and strategy, is thus an independent European nuclear deterrent. General Beaufre’s conclusions are arguable, just as some of his premises—such as a rather exaggerated fear of the emerging “Third World”—seem dubious. But his reasoning is rigorous, and his logic has a compelling quality which cannot be easily tossed off. This is original strategy on the highest level, and if it is to be refuted, it will take a mind of the same caliber to do it. In his disciple André Beaufre, Basil Liddell Hart seems to have found a worthy successor.