Best Defense

Edgar on Strategy (II): An anti-strategist’s view

What Tolstoy can teach us about the traps of self assurance.

leo tolstoy


By Paul Edgar
Best Defense guest columnist

 As historically informed strategists, how do we explain the election of President Donald Trump? Last week, I described Leo Tolstoy as the anti-strategist. In our circles, we do not often take Tolstoy seriously, except as an interesting example of what we are not. But the election of Trump is a textbook and, amongst many, a still very raw example of why Tolstoy should never be far from our thoughts.

How do we explain Trump’s election, an event that defies our best attempts at analysis? By all accounts, he ought not have made it through the Republican primary. But sure as s–t, he won the primary and so much more.

Was it his compelling charisma? No. Steve Bannon’s campaign management genius? No. Their superior policy proposals? No. Was it the angry, white Rust Belt vote? Not enough to turn an election. The anti-Clinton white women vote? Again, not enough to turn it. Was it the John-Galt-Lives! entrepreneurs, the citizens most negatively affected by Obamacare? There’s not enough of them. Former FBI Director James Comey’s awkward timing? Again, by itself, not enough.

Countless things, including over one hundred twenty million individual decisions, all of it beyond the control of strategy, happened to converge at a particular time and place in order to propel Trump into office. This is Tolstoyan history.

Most readers may know that Napoleon’s invasion of Russia served as Tolstoy’s case study in War and Peace, employed to explain his philosophy of history and to ridicule the practice of and faith in strategy. One by one, Tolstoy overtly or tacitly examines the reasons historians and strategists offered to explain Napoleon’s defeat and turns them on their head. We may not agree with his examination or conclusions, but we should respect them.

For example, according to Tolstoy, the ethos of Napoleon’s France had both wild success and tragic overextension built into it from the start. Success and failure were not contingent on whether Napoleon had a good view of the battlefield, or if he was sick, or if his subordinates reported accurately. He and his armies were destined to succeed in a particular context, where liberté et ordre public were understood and appreciated in similar ways. Napoleon’s success was merely a natural expression of French and European spirit in that era.

Success, as it often does, necessarily propelled France to try to succeed again, and again, and again, until the French army found itself in an entirely strange context, where they were, in fact, destined to fail. Tolstoy’s description resembles a Clausewitzian caution against deploying further than the vaunted culminating point of victory. Yet it is not the same thing. Tolstoy’s world of necessity and destiny sounds preposterous to those of us who believe in contingency and strategy.

But again, Tolstoy has a point. The view of war, diplomacy, and public order that Napoleon shared with much of Europe was not similarly a part of the Russian ethos. Russian muzhiks probably did not know and certainly did not care that the normal response to the decisive occupation of one’s capital city was surrender. They did not care that Napoleon would be a gracious victor and return their city largely in the same condition he received it. They did not consider that they might save time, energy, and lives by formulaically capitulating and seeing him back to France. They just wanted to kick his ass. It was a reflection of Russian ethos. We can appreciate it, but it defies clean sociological or scientific analysis.

Tolstoy’s view of cultural ethos sometimes explains a lot in our own day, even if it leaves little or no room for manipulation or control. The disaster of Iraqi sectarian violence between 2005 and 2008 also stemmed from an unanticipated cultural ethos. Social forces beyond our understanding and control turned U.S. strategy on its head.

In War and Peace, Tolstoy offers many other critiques of strategy. But describing the national ethos of various belligerents and their natural, inevitable consequences is one of his most prominent. This description occurs at a council of coalition generals:

A Frenchman is self-assured because he considers himself personally, in mind as well as in body, irresistibly enchanting for men as well as women. An Englishman is self-assured on the grounds that he is a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore, as an Englishman, he always knows what he must do, and knows that everything he does as an Englishman is unquestionably good. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it possible to know anything fully. A German is self-assured worst of all, and most firmly of all, and most disgustingly of all, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which he has invented himself, but which for him is the absolute truth.

We might be beyond the close-minded, nationalist world that Tolstoy describes. Maybe. Our thoughts are more liberated and independent and…scientific. Our science of strategy has advanced 100 years since Tolstoy’s death. All of that is true enough. Yet we are still self-assured for all kinds of wrong reasons, not least because self-assurance is a part of our national ethos.

Self-assured, analytical explanations multiply in the aftermath of surprising turns in human events, whether it be Napoleon’s defeat or Trump’s victory or chaotic Iraqi sectarian violence. And they portend to smooth our future, too. But even the best explanations of the unexpected can be woefully insufficient, leaving us strategists with a bit of an empty feeling inside. Sometimes history, consisting of millions and millions of disparate actions by people driven by partially informed, partially understood instinct, and not by perfect strategic science, simply defies our understanding. And it spurns our attempt to control it.

Paul Edgar is a Ph.D. student in Middle East languages and cultures at the University of Texas and a Clements Center Graduate Fellow. Recently retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, he commanded 4th Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry from 2011 to 2013. He also has worked extensively in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, and Israel.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

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