Tuesday, July 27, 2010

General diffusion

In the Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, Donald Stoker launches a campaign to rethink a conflict, with mixed results

The following review was published yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

My first reaction to encountering this substantial, handsome volume is puzzlement: strategy and the Civil War? What does Professor Stoker mean by strategy? This sense of curiosity intensified when I read the jacket and promotional copy promising that the book is a rare one of its kind, and still more when I opened it -- as one often does when casing a book -- to a random page and entered a conversation that didn't sound much different than what you'd hear in a book by James McPherson or Shelby Foote. Actually reading The Grand Design both clarifies and disappoints: the book does indeed offer some fresh angles on a familiar subject, but, like many of the people it criticizes, the author loses the forest in a maze of what by now are some well-marked trees.

In his vigorous introduction, Stoker, who teaches at the U.S. Naval War College in Monterrey, distills what are clearly years of teaching by demarcating some boundaries and defining terms in an approach heavily influenced by Carl von Clausewitz. Stoker notes, and dispenses with, the common contemporary conflation of the words "strategy" and "tactics," distinguishing between them by correlating the former with ends and the latter with means. But then he goes beyond that: actually, he says, strategy is embedded in a larger intellectual construct that includes "operations" (a midpoint between strategy and tactics), and, especially, the concept of "policy," which stands at the top of an inverted pyramid. To establish a policy is in effect to determine war aims. The next strata down are "grand strategy" (which is as likely to be political and economic as it is military) and "strategy" (typically more narrowly military). These are effectively the approach one adopts to realize a policy. The next layer down the pyramid  is "operations," the plans one formulates to implement the strategy; at the bottom are "tactics," ground-level movements in the service of operations. Example (in reverse, from bottom to top): Pickett's Charge was a tactic in the Gettysburg operation, part of a larger Confederate strategy to take the military as well as political initiative and thus achieve the policy objective of Confederate independence.

This appears to be a reasonably clear taxonomy, but if you find it a bit confusing, you're not alone: Stoker notes that many Civil War political and military leaders had the same problem, which is why the war went on as unnecessarily long as it did. By way of illustration, you might think -- as, for example, someone like Union general George McClellan did, at least for a while -- that winning the Civil War was a matter of capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond. But here you would have to ask why you think so. Presumably, it's because taking Richmond would destroy the Confederate capacity to fight. But if snuffing out an insurrection is really the goal (that is to say policy) of a given military campaign (that is to say operation), then defeating the Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would be a better strategy than seizing the admittedly valuable piece of real estate that Richmond represented. Much to his exasperation, this is something that Abraham Lincoln came to understand better than everybody he put in charge of the U.S. armed forces for the first three years of the war. Conversely, when Robert E. Lee invaded Maryland in 1862 and Pennsylvania in 1863, he was as mindful of the impact his actions would have on Northern public opinion as he was in impeding Union efforts to conduct its own offensives. Indeed, Lee never thought he could actually stay in Gettysburg or anywhere else north of the Potomac River for very long; his offensive operations were really part of a larger defensive strategy that sometimes required him to go on the attack operationally.

The problem with military leadership in the Civil War, Stoker says, is that far too few generals (and he would include the officious Jefferson Davis here) could think straight. It is this capacity to implement well-thought ideas -- not personalities, not ideology, not even material resources -- that ultimately decides the outcome of conflicts, he asserts. Unfortunately, this resource was in hopelessly short supply. Confederate general Leonidas Polk may have thought he was bringing the pivotal border state of Kentucky into the rebel fold when he invaded it in 1862, but he did precisely the opposite in mobilizing Unionist resistance there. McClellan celebrated driving the invader from "our soil" at Antietam, only to be reminded by a furious Lincoln that as far as McClellan should have been concerned, it was all U.S. soil, which was not really the point in any case: Lee's army was. Both sides diffused their energies in 1863 by paying far too much attention to the perimeter of the war in places like Texas rather than the Confederate heartland, and both sides allowed indecisive generals to lose sight of one of one of the most critical commodities of war: time. The longer wars go on, Stoker notes, the more remorseless they become, and the more time you take to get your ducks lined up in order, the more time you give your enemy to do the same.

Inevitably, however, it becomes difficult to separate ideas from the character of the person who advances them, and this becomes one of the ways the book bogs down. Stoker makes a fairly good brief for McClellan as a strategic thinker, but his assessment inevitably ends up where just about everybody else's does: Good ideas are worthless if you don't have the will to act on them. Ditto for the man Lincoln called a "first-rate clerk," Henry Halleck. Stoker notes that Jefferson Davis seemed incapable of the kind of big-picture thinking that Lincoln and Lee routinely performed. But the principal reason for that incapacity was the pettiness and vanity that Stoker repeatedly cites.

Not that either Lee or Lincoln escape criticism here. Even when his actions were rational, Stoker finds, many of Lee's decisions proved counterproductive. Similarly, Lincoln had real reason to question the resolve for his string of commanders that ran from Irvin McDowell to George Meade, but his ideas were of limited value at best, and his meddling (which, ironically, might actually have been less bad if he ordered more and suggested less) sapped administrative morale.

These are the kinds of points -- along with counter-intuitive thinking about the limits of Ulysses S. Grant's capture of Vicksburg, or the way the Civil War hearkened back to the American Revolution at least as much as it anticipated the First World War -- that make for interesting reading. Far too often, however, Stoker makes precisely the same mistake that he laments: he gets bogged down in page after page of operational detail in a book that's explicitly about strategy. I mean, who cares about the endless indecisive squabbling between Halleck and Don Carlos Buell? Can Stoker just get on with it -- or, at least, remind us why such details matter? He spends much more time setting up the battles than actually describing what happens, which is logical in its way. But you're left with the worst of both worlds: lots of largely irrelevant hypotheticals without the payoff you get in the hands of masters like McPherson and Foote, who for all their differences shared a deft grasp of the big picture that Stoker claims as his own but far too often loses.

I actually think there's a good book still in here that remains to be written, perhaps after the volume on Clausewitz I understand Stoker is currently researching. This would involve boiling down the diffuse intelligence that's evident here and distilling it to its essence. Perhaps this would be a slim volume organized around the strategic visions of particular people, or sorting out a set of strategic approaches and the people who adopted (or, as the case may be, abandoned) them. For my part, I would have also liked to see a bit more consideration of how political factors like emancipation and the enlistment of African American soldiers had bona fide military implications and consequences at the level of strategy. Stoker gives us a lot to think about in The Grand Design. It's in his own design dimension where he should be thinking a little more strategically.