Is the enemy of my enemy’s strategy really my strategy?
Finally getting through some of my backlog posts.
Thinking about Vegetius (author of the famous De re militari, a reformist treatise on Roman warfare written before 450 AD), I remain puzzled over what appears to be a mainstay of strategic conventional wisdom. It appears in Vegetius’ General Maxims (Book III chapter 26), wherein he states, to use Milner’s translation:
“In all battles the terms of campaign are such that what benefits you harms the enemy, and what helps him always hinders you. There we ought never to do or omit to do anything at his pleasure, but carry out only that which we judge useful to ourselves. For you begin to be against yourself if you copy what he has done in his own interest, and likewise whatever you attempt for your side will be against him if he chooses to imitate it.”
Other military authors have stated much the same, usually when advising generals to avoid being forced into a field battle, and it has been favorably cited by modern military historians as well. To quote from an English translation of Frederick the Great’s Military Instructions to his Generals: “Those battles are the best into which we force the enemy, for it is an established maxim, to oblige him to do that for which he has no sort of inclination, and as your interest and his are so diametrically opposite, it cannot be supposed that you are both wishing for the same event.” [There’s some context around this quote that merits consideration too.]
But once I start to analyze this logic, my head hurts. It seems like there are a number of rather questionable assumptions underneath this conventional wisdom, or, at least, complications that make me wonder about its utility as a heuristic.
“Forcing an enemy to fight a battle they don’t want” and “Avoid fighting a battle your enemy is trying to force upon you” seem like reasonable advice on the surface, though perhaps the second is more reasonable than the first. Although one of the key assumptions seems to be that victory goes to the one prepared for battle, i.e. it assumes the enemy doesn’t want to fight because he’s not ready for it and will therefore lose. This fits the prudential argument that preparation and discipline are key, but seems to be undermined by the corresponding prudential point that battles are inherently risky and chance plays a key role, regardless of how well prepared you are. If the outcome of a battle is decided by chance or fortuna or the Wheel of Fate or God or whatever, what does your intention and preparation have to do with anything? (I don’t recall seeing the old “God helps those who help themselves” quoted in this context, but I know Eugene of Savoy mentioned it at least once.) Or maybe the military sages don’t really believe the “battle is dictated by fate” line after all? Maybe that’s more of a platitude than practical advice.
This advice leaves me confused on another level (but, then again, what doesn’t). Another major assumption is that a strategic zero-sum game is in effect – most clearly stated by the Prussian Great Captain. But is it usually true that military operations are a zero-sum game, that the two sides are diametrically opposed? Can it be rational for two sides to both pursue the same strategy, to want the same thing, e.g. to fight a field battle? (Especially if we assume that the outcome of battle is a roll of the dice, in which case it wasn’t necessarily a mistake for the losing side to seek battle.) Isn’t it possible that the same event (say, a battle), could actually benefit (and harm) neither side, or end up helping/harming each side equally, i.e. end up being a wash? Haven’t we seen one or two indecisive field battles in history?
This conventional wisdom also seems to imply an omniscient understanding of both yourself and your enemy, in wartime no less. There seem to be several levels here, and I’m not sure about their correspondence with each other: a) what you want to do, b) what you want your enemy to think you want to do, c) what your enemy wants to do, d) what your enemy wants you to think he wants to do, e) what you should do that will help you, f) what you should do that will hurt your enemy, g) what the outcomes (tactical, but also operational and strategic) of those actions are. Some possible complications:
- What if you are wrong about your weaknesses? About your enemy’s? Do people, particularly people in the emotionally-charged, dangerously-competitive and deceptively-secretive atmosphere of wartime, always know what is best for themselves, and what is worst for their enemy? Maybe heuristics for generals should encourage them to question their assumptions, to contemplate their origins, rather simply embrace them? Or does that only promise indecision and paralysis?
- Should you avoid acquiescing to you enemy’s desire for battle if your enemy is wrong? If he’s adopting a flawed strategy, or relying on flawed intell, etc.?
- How well do you really know your enemy’s intentions? Should you reassess your strategy based off what your enemy is attempting to do? Only forcing the enemy to do things which they have “no sort of inclination” is an important qualification, but what level of certainty does this require, and how do we achieve that level of certainty in wartime? How does the frequent discussion of stratagems and tricking the enemy relate to knowing what the enemy wants? What if, for example, your enemy is using a stratagem to get you to react? (“Let’s see, I know that he knows that I know…”) If the enemy gives out that they want to fight, should you avoid a battle? How do you even know your enemy really wants to fight, and isn’t just yanking your chain to waste the campaign season?
- If applied blindly, the heuristic of “avoid what your enemy wants” seems to imply that you should abandon your predefined objectives if they end up telling you to do what the enemy seems to want you to do. How is one to reconcile the contradiction when your predefined strategy coincides with what the enemy wants to do, especially in Frederick’s world of diametrical opposition? Let’s say the mediocre French commander Villeroi is marching towards the Allied army to engage in battle. Does that mean the Allies should avoid the battle because the enemy wants it? (Spoiler alert: they happily accept the French will to fight and thrash them at Ramillies.) So the “judging for yourself” actually seems to be the key and almost too obvious to merit explicit formulation, yet it usually gets buried underneath the doctrinaire “what helps your enemy always hinders you.” Why so strict a formulation? Why bury the lede?
- Where is the guidance as to how you should measure what helps vs. what hinders? Perhaps a battle victory might help with one problem but hurt you on another level. Oddly, the reasons often given for why you should fight a battle, often revolving around the potential future loss of numerical or moral superiority, seem fleeting, hypothetical and hardly fatal, yet they are portrayed as catastrophic enough to induce one to commit to a field battle. Is this fear of battle?
In other words, the thought process here seems so simplistic and confusing that I wonder what utility contemporaries actually derived from such formulaic advice. Did they debate these issues, perhaps prompted by the theoretical manuals? Or am I totally missing the point? Fodder for my battle book.