Battle: A History Of Combat And Culture by John A. Lynn

Here are some highlights from this 2009 book:

Clausewitz begins with violence, hatred, and enmity, which he believes “mainly concerns the people,” for here he labels what is clearly the most novel and pressing matter of the day. 89 The French Revolution changed war from an affair of kings to an affair of peoples and transformed men in the ranks from hirelings to citizen soldiers. Clausewitz recognized this as the most critical watershed in the warfare of his day. The German reformers, Clausewitz among them, pressed the Prussian monarchy to enlist its people in the struggle against Napoleon. They identified popular commitment as the missing, and consequently the most urgently sought, element in the Prussian capacity for war. Therefore, Fichte’s attempt to rally patriotic feelings worked hand in hand with Scharnhorst’s concrete reforms. Art and politics mutually reinforced each other. Not long after Clausewitz returned to Berlin in 1807, he pleaded for the program of Romanticism: “A genuine need of our time [is] to return from the tendency to rationalize to the neglected riches of the emotions and of the imagination.” 90
In On War, Clausewitz’s concern for human psychology comes out repeatedly in his overriding emphasis on the human will. War is ultimately a “contest of wills” and the bloody cost of battle is simply a means to break the enemy’s will: “rather a killing of the enemy’s spirit than of his men.” 91 While will can mean political will, a rational choice, it also involves the passions of enemy peoples. After defining “the power of resistance,” as resulting from two factors, means and will, he made it clear that “subtleties of logic do not motivate the human will.” 92
Clausewitz linked chance and genius in a striking manner. The Military Enlightenment recognized the role chance could play, but sought to reduce it to a minimum, particularly by eschewing battle. Clausewitz found chance unavoidable and advocated battle, a theater where chance could dominate the stage.

…The critical Clausewitzian concept of “friction” constitutes a special role for chance. As early as 1812, in a piece written for his charge, the crown prince, Clausewitz turned to a mechanical metaphor, so appropriate in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution: “The conduct of war resembles the working of an intricate machine with tremendous friction, so that combinations which are easily planned on paper can be executed only with great effort.” 94 In On War, he defined friction as “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.” 95 This is essential, because, “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” (This is surprisingly similar to Napoleon’s statement that “The art of war is a simple art and everything depends upon execution.” 96 ) All things that complicate action in war, that go wrong or come up unexpectedly, constitute friction. “[T]his tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.” In another striking metaphor, Clausewitz compares “action in war” to “movement in a resistant element”: “Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results.” If general friction arises from the multitude of practical problems involved in military operations and from chance, it also results from lack of knowledge of the enemy, of the battlefield, etc., and generally from war’s unavoidable uncertainty and confusion, the fog of war. “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”

…[Peter] Paret would have us accept that Clausewitz did not impose himself and his own intellectual construct on reality but simply penetrated and portrayed the truth of it all. But this contention seems at odds with the character of his work; in fact, it runs counter to the very nature of intellectual endeavor. If Clausewitz must be seen as a product of his time and circumstance, his current popularity is worth pondering.

…In a violent response to the 1923 earthquake, Japanese police and mobs tortured and slew 6,000 Koreans resident in Japan — a display of vicious, mindless racism.

…the Japanese believed Americans to be soft, self – indulgent, and incapable of serious sacrifice; therefore, Americans would tire and withdraw from a contest with the far tougher and committed Japanese. 87 In what ranks as a monumental misperception, just before the battle of Midway, Mitsuo Fuchida, the air commander of the raid on Pearl Harbor and again to command at Midway, wrote a report dismissing the Americans as lacking the will to fight. 88 Without this prejudiced and fatally incorrect conviction, Japanese war plans did not make sense, since Tokyo always realized that the advantages of numbers in manpower and materiel always rested with the United States.
This certainty of spiritual superiority also led to doctrinal miscalculations.

…ask if racism played a role in defining American strategy and doctrine. Should we find evidence there, we might conclude that the conflict was, indeed, a race war. But the evidence does not exist. When war broke out, the United States applied a strategic blueprint that it had been drafting for over three decades. These plans were not dictated by racial bigotry but by geographical and technological imperatives. The same can be said for crucial elements of doctrine.

…From the start, the United States planned to take on Japan in a naval campaign rather than committing to a great and costly land war in Asia.

…the Marine Corps had guessed right and prepared for the kind of fighting that awaited it on Pacific islands. The preparation of the peacetime Corps is one of the great success stories of prewar planning and training, but it had little to do with defining the enemy as specifically Japanese. No derogatory assumptions about the Japanese influenced these plans. It is true that Americans made some mistakes that can be ascribed to racial stereotyping, such as dismissing the quality of Japanese aircraft before the rude awakening, but these were peripheral to the prosecution of the war.

…most Americans in combat fought for and with their comrades rather than against their enemies. In fact, there is little evidence to demonstrate that combat effectiveness under fire improves with strong hatred.

…This chapter closely follows the work of Kenneth M. Pollack. In his Arabs at War (2002), Pollack identifies the general ineffectiveness of Arab armies, seeks explanations in a number of possible failings, and concludes that the primary weaknesses have historically been in tactical leadership, information management, technical skills and weapons handling, and maintenance. He claims that these failings have been typical of “every single Arab army and air force between 1948 and 1991.” 3 It will be enough for this chapter if these generalizations fit the case study of Egypt — and they do. Above all, Egyptian shortcomings in Pollack’s categories of tactical leadership and information management proved most damaging. Pollack’s argument is all the more convincing because the high command of the Egyptian army itself reached similar conclusions.

…campaign plans ought to build upon the particular character of the army for which they are intended.

…Attrition warfare depends on superiority in manpower and materiel to batter an enemy into submission, and is usually costly. In contrast, maneuver warfare maximizes effect by movement, with the goal of achieving greater results at far less sacrifice of blood. Maneuver warfare probes, discovers, and exploits; it seeks advantage and strikes, ideally by attacking an enemy’s vulnerability with one’s own hardest and sharpest edge.

…Maneuver requires tactical flexibility and improvisation guided by accurate and timely intelligence, and Arab military culture, Pollack insists, repeatedly found these abilities to be elusive.

… The special character of Egyptian military culture, and the value of harmonizing technology and tactics with it, argues for the absolute necessity to appreciate the uniqueness of the different militaries. Concepts of a universal soldier and ideas of weaponry as dictating a single best way to fight seem naïve.

…”Arab armies and air forces did not suffer in combat because they lacked ammunition, food, water, fuel, lubricants, medical supplies, repair tools, spare parts, or other combat necessities.”

…Arab artillery pieces were often the best available, but they were poorly coordinated and commanded. Even successes, as in 1973, reveal core weaknesses in artillery usage, as we shall see. Arab tank crews usually were poor marksmen and maneuvered ineptly. Fighter pilots could not defeat technologically inferior enemy aircraft.

…Many critics of U.S. foreign policy charge that specific American actions, such as a virtual blank check for Israel, have alienated much of the Moslem world, and there is a great deal of truth to this accusation. However, these critics go on to argue that the U.S. could end the threat of extreme Islamic terrorism simply by reversing such policies. However, no matter what the origins of Moslem resentment, once it was transformed from political/rational to cultural/religious, the adoption of more enlightened policies by the United States, although valuable in the long run, would probably not diminish the terrorist threat soon.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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