May 052008

The interesting point, and a crucial one too, is about the slowness of response to changes on the battlefield, even when basic assumptions are being challenged and quite often falling apartHumans have fought wars before they began to record history. And they have fought them for various reasons, ranging from honour to security to the thought that the world is anarchic to more material benefits like territory and spoils. Sometimes even a face can launch a thousand ships.


If one accepts Hegel’s idea of the first man and his mortal combat, men mayn’t just fight for material benefits and riches; they can, and do, fight and die for prestige.

Whatever the reasons, fought they have and fight they shall, despite the presence of pacifists and the modern thought that tends to reject the paradox of si vi pacem para bellum and seeks to advance si vi pacem para pacem as the only way to bring peace.

My idea here is not to challenge the peace through peace theory; that to me is a non-starter and therefore a settled debate. Equally, however, if peace does require preparing for war or, in certain cases, waging war, it hardly needs emphasising that the use of force should take into account the utility of force as an obvious given. In other words, the force of arms must be wedded to a higher politico-strategic objective — and it must end up achieving it.

If it doesn’t, it will be safe to say that the use of force has not resulted in the utility of force.

Let’s hold this thought and ask another question. Is the battlefield impacted by technological developments? Yes. That’s another historical given. New weapons require new tactics; create new capabilities; generate new possibilities. Sometimes, as Thomas Kuhn mentioned in his 1962 classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the paradigm undergoes a shift, a situation in which basic assumptions undergo a sea-change.

Kuhn was arguing about the “paradigm [as that which]… members of a scientific community, and they alone, share”. He sought to keep the scientific community distinct in that regard. But war too can become costly if paradigm shifts, when they occur, are not heeded and at least one adversary continues, or seeks, to fight according to old assumptions.

There are many spots of time along the historical trajectory of war-fighting but closer to our time we see the shift with the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte created a national army through “willing” conscription and got France to fight “armies” on the Continent that, until Gerhard von Scharnhorst’s idea of a general staff, mostly comprised mercenary troops employed by various states and principalities.

Bonaparte gave the foretaste of national wars, the idea so lamented and considered dangerous by Maj.-Gen JFC Fuller (The Conduct of War). Bonaparte’s corps d’ armee, the model that allowed him both flexibility and superiority in numbers (“width-depth and concentration/dispersion”) could not be sustained without France’s participation.

Weapon systems too change the battlefield environment, the machine gun and the tank being just two examples. The defence-offence equation and the debate revolving around these two concepts, especially in the context of World War I, is well-known.

But the interesting point, and a crucial one too, is about the slowness of response to changes on the battlefield, even when basic assumptions are being challenged and quite often falling apart. The introduction of nuclear weapons is a case in point.

While Bernard Brodie realised early on that wars between two nuclear-capable adversaries had become a no-no (another one later was Philip Windsor), it took at least two decades for everyone to realise that. The fifties and the sixties saw much theorising on the use and utility of nuclear weapons against the adversary until a realisation set in that balance-of-terror meant just that — a balance that precluded all sides from doing something stupid.

Just one example would suffice and I quote here from an article I wrote for The Friday Times (“The tactical nuclear weapons redux”; Jan 21-27, 2005 | Vol. XVI, No. 48):

“The concept of TNWs was based on a policy that sought to reduce the conventional imbalance between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. Proponents suggested that small-yield, short-range battlefield weapons would increase the strategic nuclear threshold by lessening the salience of strategic nuclear weapons, although TNWs were not strictly perceived as an alternative to strategic bombing but as a supplement to it.

“The logic to develop and deploy TNWs was pegged to three main propositions: it would be difficult for the other side (Warsaw Pact) to develop them any time soon and therefore the option would afford NATO an advantage for some time; they could be actually used without too much collateral damage; finally, their use would favour defence (on the last point it must be noted that for a long time — it seems even now — the tendency was to continue to look at nuclear weapons in the classic defence-offence equation).

“The first of these propositions became invalid in short order because the Soviet Union developed TNWs by the mid-fifties, blunting any advantage NATO might have enjoyed. Also, it became clear that TNWs could not only be used by the defending forces against invading columns but could be equally effectively employed by an attacking force against the defenders — just like it would conventional artillery to soften up the defences. And once the USSR deployed these weapons it became all the more certain that there was no inherent advantage to be had by the defenders of the possession of TNWs. Finally, since the most likely battleground for a direct hot conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces would have been central Europe, the proposition that low-yield weapons would have less collateral damage was proved erroneous by military exercises.”

Much of this theorising, as should be obvious, brought the conventional war calculus to bear on the employment and utility of nuclear weapons. That was wrong and by the end of the sixties, nuclear strategy had RIP written in front of it. Some strange ideas still exist but there are not many buyers for them.

In a way then, the idea of an industrial war, the last major one being World War II, died with the advent of nuclear weapons. Even so, as Rupert Smith has so trenchantly observed (The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World), states have persisted in retaining armies recruited, trained, equipped and employed according to the paradigm of an industrial war.

That needs to change.

Ejaz Haider is Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and Consulting Editor of The Friday Times. This is the first of a three-part series. He can be reached at

Source: Daily Times, 5/5/2008

 Posted by at 7:29 pm

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