The Use of Force Needn’t Imply a Failure of Deterrence

Thomas Rid has been doing some very interesting work (of which this is only a soupçon) about deterrence and its role in dealing with an enemy which can never be definitively defeated.  In this context, he has argued that the use of force doesn’t always imply a failure of deterrence but may, in fact, be a necessary condition for its maintenance. 

To me this has always been somewhat reminiscent of the “tit-for-tat” strategy that Robert Axelrod found so robust in tournaments of the “iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma” game and which he discussed in his remarkable book The Evolution of Cooperation.

However, I’ve run across an interesting historical example of a strategy that even more precisely fits what Thomas talks about.  While at this weeks Society for Military History conference, I picked up a copy of Three Byzantine Military Treatises edited by George T. Dennis.  One of the treatises in this volume is the 10th Century “Skirmishing,” which is traditionally, though incorrectly, attributed to the Emperor Nikephoros.

The text was written at a time when one of Byantium’s foremost military problems was dealing with the Muslim raiders often entered Byzantine border lands.  The text advises a remarkable method of dealing with this problem.  “Instead of confronting the enemy as their on their way to invade Romania, it is in many respects more advantageous and convenient to get them as they are returning from our country to their own.”

There are several reasons for this, according to the author.  The raiders will be “worn out” and disorganized after their raiding and plundering.  Furthermore, “they are likely to be burdened with a lot of baggage, captives and animals.”  In addition, attacking them on their way out, would allow the “Romans” extra time to mobilize a larger force to confront and destroy them.

Most to the point, however, “attacking them as they return has this advantage…It will instill in them the fear that each time they want to invade, we will occupy the passes, and after a while they may cut out their constant incursions.”  [Emphasis added.]  Note that implicit in this strategy is that in order to deter future raids, at least one must take place.  In other words, violence must be applied in order to deter future violence.

Two caveats are in order.  First, “Skirmishing” is a prescriptive book, a military manual, not a history and it is not clear (to me) that the Byzantines actually applied this strategy, though I rather suspect that experts in the period could tell us.  Secondly, the editor of this book does note that whatever the military merit of such a strategy, the local civilians can’t have appreciated it much!

Update on Strategic Manhunting/Studying Special Operations

Benjamin Runkle, author of the forthcoming Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to Bin Laden, about which I wrote the other day, has a brief but thought-provoking article about the topic here at Foreign Policy.  In it he asks why we are attracted to the notion of strategic manhunting.  (HOTEL TANGO to Elizabeth Nathan.)

He finds that “killing or capturing an individual seldom correlates to strategic success” but assesses nevertheless that the idea of manhunting is likely to remain attractive to us.  Two of the several  reasons for this, he suggests, are that the idea of inducing strategic paralysis is attractive and that we manhunt because today’s technology means that we can.

These reasons, which I think are quite right, remind me of those other technologically-enabled theorists who have proposed other ways of achieving strategic paralysis: Fuller, and Boyd, and Warden, for instance.  One might also add Harlan Ullman in there.  For a book that is well worth reading and that casts a lot of cold water on such ideas (thought it doesn’t address Ullman), see James Kiras’ Special Operations and Strategy:  From World War II to the War on Terrorism.  Kiras basically argues that we have given too much attention to one-off “special operations and great raids” and their alleged ability to induce strategic paralysis and other dramatic effects.  In part this has happened because there is a great deal of literature about such operations.  He maintains that we should instead understand the strategic importance of special operations forces as lying primarily in their ability to induce “moral and material attrition in conjunction with conventional forces.”  He seeks to align himself against those who are attracted to ideas of “strategic annihilation” and alongside those who purportedly really understood the strategic dimensions of attrition.  In this latter category he puts Clausewitz, Delbrück, Mao, and T. E. Lawrence.

I’m still undecided on whether I really agree with Kiras, but it does seem to me that the idea has some obvious congruence with counterinsurgency efforts like the one in Iraq where special operations were ubiquitous and apparently indispensable but seldom dramatic stop-the-presses kinds of affairs.  Rather, they were a key part of the effort to hold the enemy in check while the broader Coalition force made blandishments to the population as a whole.

Book and Blog on Strategic Manhunting

I’ve just added a new blog to my blogroll: Wanted Dead or Alive. It is run by Benjamin Runkle, who describes himself this way:

A former paratrooper and presidential speechwriter with a Harvard PhD and a Bronze Star from Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has worked in the Department of Defense and on the National Security Council. He is the author of “Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden,” forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan in July 2011.

That book of his was originally supposed to come out in September, but for some odd reason, the publisher has pushed the date forward and it will now be out in July.  I can’t imagine why.

I look forward to reading this book.  The idea of achieving quick and decisive results by taking out the enemy’s leader is persistently tempting, though it often rests on unexamined assumptions.  Among these are commonly:

  • That the leader plays a major role in the command and control of the enemies armed forces;
  • That the leader is irreplaceable;
  • That his sudden departure will demoralize the enemy’s armed forces and/or population or will cause them to collapse into disorganization.
  • That even despite the above, the enemy will retain sufficient unity of command to be able to surrender.

By the way, the book is presently ranked as the 612,070th bestseller on  I rather suspect that ranking will improve.  A lot.  For crying out loud, he even got “Geronimo” in the title!

Leaderless Resistance: Well Isn’t That Convenient?


I’ve suggested before that Anonymous qualifies as a leaderless resistance movement, though, frankly, I waffled on that a little bit because Anonymous hasn’t been violent.

Be that as it may, Anonymous does display many of the qualities of a leaderless resistance movement and it has recently put one of those on particular display.  Last month somebody hacked into Sony’s networks and stole a great deal of customer data, including credit card numbers.  The perpetrator left behind a file named “Anonymous” which contained the phrase “We are legion,” a part of the group’s slogan.

On a blog which claims to speak for Anonymous, a recent posting disavows responsibility for this raid on Sony, implying that Anonymous is not a crass criminal organization but instead is and asserting that it has “never been known to engage in credit card theft.”

I see.  The assertion may be true, but this is all very convenient, isn’t it?

The Anonymous movement is not only leaderless with no definable membership, but in fact it really exists only as an ideology, as Simson Garfinkel has helped us understand.  Hence, any action not consistent with that ideology was not undertaken by the movement, even if it was actually undertaken by someone thinking he/she was acting on behalf of the movement.

Hence, a leaderless resistance movement can be absolutely ideologically pure.  Oh, how the Marxists must be jealous.

Carey Schofield on the Pakistani Army

I am really excited that Carey Schofield has a book coming out next year on the Pakistani Army.  [Correction:  Coming out THIS year, August 1, 2011, to be exact.  Apparently I missed this thing called “New Year.”]  Entitled Inside the Pakistani Army: A Woman’s Experience on the Frontline of the War on Terror, it promises to be a useful augmentation to the literature on the Pakistani Army and a good read.  (To be honest, I found Shuja Nawaz’s Crossed Swords so intimidating that I haven’t started it.  Instead, I loaned it to a friend so that it doesn’t stare at me reproachfully from my bookshelf.)

Why do I think that Schofield’s book will be so good?  Because her 1993 The Russian Elite: Inside Spetsnaz and the Airborne Forces was amazing. This book came out at a time when the Russian airborne forces were of great interest to all of us who were following the Russian military, its role in politics, and its responses to unrest in Russia and in the so-called Russian “near-abroad.”  While we were all looking from the outside, Schofield had managed to get literally inside the airborne, visiting most of the units and befriending many of its officers.  (She also notably befriended Alexander Lebed, not an airborne officer, though his little brother Aleksey was, who later entered politics and became Russia’s national security adviser.  We have him to blame for the lingering silliness about”suitcase nukes.”)  Her book really gave a sense of the people and the environment of this important force at a pivotal time in history.  It appears that she’s done much the same with for her Pakistan book.  The blurb on Amazon says “She spent five years with the Pakistan army, accompanying them on maneuvers and getting to know key figures from junior soldiers to [Army chief General] Kayani himself. For five years, she travelled everywhere with them.  They even had a uniform made for her.”

Schofield’s book had far more of the human element in it than Dave Glantz’s 1994 A History of Soviet Airborne Forces  or Steve Zaloga’s 1995 Inside the Blue Berets: A Combat History of Soviet & Russian Airborne Forces , 1930-1995.  It was also far more of a snapshot in time than a history.  They were all fine books, of course.  Glantz’ book was his usual detailed operational history focusing on World War II and Zaloga’s was much more a history of oriented on weapons and unit organizations.  (For a review of all three published in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies by then Lieutenant Colonel Les Grau, see here.)  Despite their many qualities, the one that my colleagues and I kept coming back to and discussing, the one with the real “wow” factor” was Carey Schofields.  (As an aside, her other book, the 1991 Inside the Soviet Military is similarly good.  It is, however, much broader in scope.  Basically, you can think of it as a “day in the life of the Soviet military” in 1991, with photos appropriate for a coffee-table book.)

I have often wondered what became of Carey Schofield and I’m delighted to hear that she’s still in the business.  If it lives up to my expectations, Inside the Pakistani Army should be of great interest to military historians, people interested in South Asia, and people following the progress of the Af-Pak struggle against jihadism.

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 4:30 AM  Leave a Comment  
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