Three Ghosts Who Haunt Modern Strategy

By: Dr. John Arquilla, US Naval Postgraduate School

I see dead strategists.

Let me help you see them, too. For just a moment, avert your gaze from the latest Islamic State attacks and atrocities. Instead, concentrate along with me on catching a glimpse of the three ghosts who haunt the halls of the US Pentagon and the central military administrations of most developed nations—the three ghosts who drive policy in costly, counterproductive directions and keep much of the world in a permanent state of chaos.

The most senior specter is that of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), whose brilliant early campaigns gave way, as his power grew, to a series of increasingly bloody slugging matches between massive armies, epitomized by the carnage of Borodino, the most Pyrrhic of his victories.1 British strategist Basil Liddell Hart observed that Napoleon had "pinned his faith to mass" and had even inspired the influential Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, to become "the Mahdi of Mass," as Liddell Hart dubbed him.2 US General Colin Powell's eponymous doctrine of "overwhelming force"—still regnant in most strategic circles—reflects the enduring power of the ghost of Napoleon and is responsible for the trillions of dollars wasted in Afghanistan and Iraq over more than a dozen years. The Mahdi of Mass and his heirs are all but irrelevant in the face of today's reality of terrorism and insurgency.

In the United States, the ghost of Napoleon has haunted leaders of both major political parties until they have agreed to lavish trillions more dollars on the Pentagon in the coming years—despite simultaneous stern demands on both sides for more fiscal austerity. The remedy to failures in the field, as Napoleon's spirit still whispers more than 200 years after the disaster of the Russian Campaign and his undoing at Waterloo, is to add more of everything. Not one to accept a call to negotiate peace even after leaving hundreds of thousands of his troops dead across Russia, the French emperor had raised yet another massive army—and quickly lost it in the great "Battle of the Nations" at Leipzig.3 Napoleon's first abdication followed six months after this disaster.

The second spirit hovering over strategic affairs today is that of US Army Brigadier General Billy Mitchell (1879–1936), an early apostle of modern air power. Almost a century ago, in the decades between the two world wars, then-Colonel Mitchell held that swift offensive strikes from the sky could bring enemies to heel without the need for land or naval action. Like so many evangelists, Mitchell suffered for his beliefs, including a court martial conviction for insubordination. But within a few short years, his ideas had captured the imagination of senior military and political leaders around the world.

As a result of Billy Mitchell's crusade, air power has been used repeatedly over the last 75 years with the explicit aim of "bombing to win," in the words of University of Chicago professor Robert Pape.4 The current war against ISIS is highly dependent on aerial bombing, and the Saudis have applied Billy Mitchell's formula to their air campaign in Yemen. Almost all such efforts have failed—including the counter-ISIS air war and the Saudi bomber offensive against Yemen's insurgent Houthis—but the ghost of Billy Mitchell still hovers over headquarters planners, cockpit and drone pilots, and the high councils of all too many nations, luring them on, siren-like.

The third apparition haunting global strategy and policy is that of Osama bin Laden (1957–2011). The man who started history's first great war between nations and networks is only five years dead, yet it is already clear that he is—in an ominously Dickensian sense—the ghost of conflicts to come. His demise seems only to have scattered the seeds of networked insurgency and terrorism—old and new—across the globe: from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan to al Qaeda "franchises" everywhere; from the quickly metastasizing ISIS splinter group in Syria and Iraq to Boko Haram in Nigeria; from Jemaah Islamiya and the Abu Sayyaf group in Southeast Asia to Hizb ut-Tahrir around the globe. The list goes on and on, with countless small cells—such as those that spawned recent attacks in Paris and Brussels—operating throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

Aside from having set the course for globally networked terrorism, Osama bin Laden has, with his death, done much to keep counterterrorist strategy firmly misdirected. For if Napoleon's ghost encourages an over-reliance on sheer force, and Billy Mitchell's spirit wails "No boots on the ground!" Osama bin Laden's spectral presence deceives many around the world into thinking that the assassination of terrorist leaders can bring their organizations to the verge of strategic defeat, as former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was wont to say.5

Nothing could be further from the truth. The so-called Global War on Terror has morphed into terror's war on the world. And the ghost of bin Laden no doubt smiles a chilling smile at the notion that counterterrorist efforts to defeat networks can succeed by taking out their "leaders," such as Abu Sayyaf, the ISIS oilman killed last year in an American special operations raid in eastern Syria, and ISIS's number two man, Mustafa al-Qaduli, who was killed this past March.6 The greatest strength of networks lies, after all, in their members' ability to pursue a common goal without much (if any) central control. Failure to appreciate this is the first step on the path to defeat—at ruinous cost.

In sum, Napoleon's haunting presence keeps alive the doomed, darkening strategic dreams of victory by sheer force of numbers. Billy Mitchell's spirit still conjures up enchanting images of the potential to conduct successful campaigns with clinical detachment and from a safe distance. These ghosts of wars past and present cripple our efforts to cope with the realities imposed by bin Laden's prescient vision of conflicts to come.

All three ghosts must find their rest if there is to be any chance of forestalling an age of perpetual warfare in which global defense policies are tethered to strategies that prove ever more costly and ever less effective. But what is needed to end the haunting is not a Jennifer Love Hewitt–like "ghost whisperer." 7 Instead of whispers, a loud, lively discourse among the living must unfold. The ravening Napoleonic appetite for more, toujours more, must be quelled. Mitchell's keening call for precision bombing from afar must be heard as the siren's song that it is. And finally, the obsession over taking out enemy "leaders" like bin Laden should simply be eliminated from strategic planning.

Once free from all this haunting, global counterterrorism efforts may finally focus on the two true lessons of warfare in our time: (1) Small, internationally-networked teams on the ground can greatly improve the effectiveness of air power; and (2) a shift in focus from eliminating leaders to illuminating network nodes and cells—and then striking them at many points at the most opportune moment—will have truly lasting effects.

Perhaps, if shifts of this sort are made, I'll stop seeing dead strategists. ²

About the Author(s):

Dr. John Arquilla is a professor and chair of the Department of Defense Analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

  1. The Battle of Borodino (7 September 1812), immortalized by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, was the only large-scale pitched battle between the imperial Russian army and the invading Grande Armée of France as Napoleon drove for Moscow. See "Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Borodino,", 11 March 2015: go back up
  2. Christopher Bassford, Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), Chapter 15: "J.F.C. Fuller and Basil Liddell Hart": go back up
  3. The Battle of the Nations (16–19 October 1813), also called the Battle of Leipzig, was the last battle of massed armies in the Napoleonic Wars, before Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo. See Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Battle of Leipzig": back up
  4. Robert Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996).go back up
  5. See, for example, C. Dixon Osburn, "Post-War Counterterrorism," Huffington Post, 16 October 2012: go back up
  6. See Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt, "ISIS Official Killed in US Raid in Syria, Pentagon Says," New York Times, 16 May 2015: ; Lucy Westcott, "ISIS Deputy Abdul Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli Killed by U.S. Troops", Newsweek, 25 March 2016.go back up
  7. Jennifer Love Hewitt is an American actor, director, and producer who starred in the CBS television series The Ghost Whisperer from 2005–2010. See "The Ghost Whisperer," IMDB: go back up
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