“Over By Christmas”: Campaigning, Delusions and Force Requirements

September 7, 2005

Campaigning and the Shapes of Time

There is a natural inclination to look back with the benefit of hindsight to find fresh patterns in history. Thus, for example, the period 1870–1990 can be viewed as Europe’s “HundredYear Civil War,” a perception not necessarily obvious to those engaged in that “war” at any particular time; and the Japanese have seen the Second World War from their viewpoint as variously a part of a “Hundred Years War,” a “Seventy-Five Year War,” a “Great Pacific War” and a “Great East Asian War.” More recent operations against Islamic extremists have been seen by some on both sides in an even broader context, as further iterations of a war spanning more than one thousand years and stretching from Tours to Acre, Lepanto, Khartoum, and now to New York and Bali.

While such revisionism may be fundamental to mankind’s learning process, the evidence of the past hundred years seems to be that we have an incorrigible reluctance and/or inability to make accurate assessments as to the likely length, meaning and outcome of military operations and what is or has been required to succeed in them. We have been poor judges of time and its patterns when it comes to military matters, or more specifically to campaigning, erring on the side of lethal optimism and wishful thinking in the face of the readily available facts. This suspension of critical faculties has led to serious distortions in preparing armed forces for the challenges that face them. It seems that Clausewitz’s urging—“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war upon which they are embarking”—has been in vain.

The Contention

The contention of this paper is that over the past hundred years military establishments, encouraged and directed by their political masters, have persistently underestimated the length and costs of their campaigns and have frequently had little idea of the actual nature of their undertakings. A common factor in this appears to be the desire that campaigns should be short, decisive and cheap; and therefore with less risk but a greater likelihood of popular support—to be “home by Christmas.” This delusion has often been reached irrespective of the 2 historical evidence and the analysis of current capabilities to the contrary. The desire and conviction that campaigns should, ought and in fact will be so, has often led to the creation of forces to fight on terms other than those which prove optimal in the event. The result is that those seeking a short, decisive and cheap campaign have very often laid the foundations for the opposite. Their unpreparedness and delusions have abetted costly attrition; and the resulting bill in international calamity, casualties and materiel has been shocking. There are some exceptions, and these may prove instructive models for our own future conduct.

Politically-tainted overoptimism has often led to fundamental misappreciation of the nature of a military undertaking. This deficit in imagination and understanding is then, with some resentment, often blamed on “mission creep,” or explained away with clichés masquerading as alibis, asserting that plans “never survive the first contact” or that readily predictable consequences could not have been known in advance. Many wars have ended up with objectives and rationales very different from those the belligerents began with, and events have indeed unfolded in unexpected ways; but forces are less able to deal with this unsurprising phenomenon if their own powers of anticipation have been neglected. A negative spiral of bad decisions and inappropriate action or denial may result from this negligence.

We should do better, and a more rigorous objectivity and self-analysis, perhaps beyond what hierarchy and the military culture of deference can muster, should be turned to shape and inform our armed forces. On the other hand, if this contention has substance, some might conclude that the serial misbehaviour of which defense establishments and their political masters have been guilty is so apparently irrational and foolish that it may in some way be endemic to the civil-military condition, and not amenable to correction by better training, education or more assiduous staff work. It is perhaps but a minor act in “the Human Comedy”—in short, we may be deep into “Norman Dixon country” or that dangerous, manic world of overconfidence described more recently by Dominic Johnson.4 Understanding our tendency to this condition may prevent us from being its victims, but we should certainly encourage our opponents to continue along this path of dysfunction.

Delusions and Decisionmaking

Overconfidence seems to be especially common when strategic decisions are made by unaccountable leaders, or by democratically elected leaders who are able to operate in a small group without rigorous and critical scrutiny. It may be feared that larger, more open groups would hamper decisionmaking; and when decisions are made, those on the periphery of this inner group may fear that any criticisms they make might be viewed as unpatriotic, and move them even further from the center of power. This can lead to selfcensorship, removing an important check on this “small-group behaviour.”

On the other hand, effective leaders typically accept heavy responsibility and risks, withstand setbacks and criticism and still believe they are right. The confidence of a leader is vital to confidence in him by others, and in matters of war, these qualities come to the fore. As John Maynard Keynes observed more than 60 years ago, “In the case of the Prime Minister, this 3 blindness is an essential element in his strength. If he could see even a little, if he became even faintly cognisant of the turmoil of ideas and projects and schemes to save the country which are tormenting the rest of us, his superbly brazen self-confidence would be fatally impaired.

Hitler wanted generals “like butchers’ dogs” who wanted to attack anyone they saw, but he did not expect them to challenge him or to cast doubt on his grand designs. The visions and convictions of Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler and Mao changed the world; but professional soldiers seldom see that as their life’s purpose—in a sense they are merely “military artisans.” The challenges of civil-military relations in Western societies have been eloquently analysed by Eliot Cohen in Supreme Command, 6 and it is rare good fortune if a state can combine excellence in both its political and military leadership. Generals often offer flawed judgments, but they are nevertheless a unique and indispensable source of specialist advice about their profession. Their views deserve attention if not necessarily acceptance, and in democracies they often get that attention. The military are often prisoners of their own limited perspectives, which can make their advice lethal when taken out of a more sophisticated strategic context; but the military judgment of the soldier is also often distorted by acquiescence in the face of political pressures. Equally, sound professional advice has frequently been overruled by the conviction of those uneducated in warfare but sure of their ideology and their ultimate political power of decision