Never Call Retreat?

“WHEN A BATTLE IS LOST, the strength of the army is broken — its moral even more than its physical strength. A second battle without the help of new and more favorable factors would mean outright defeat, perhaps even absolute destruction. That is a military axiom. It is in the nature of things that a retreat should be continued until the balance of power is reestablished.” — Carl von Clausewitz, On War 

Clausewitz was writing of war when he first penned these words in the late 1820s, and of the distinct campaigns that constitute a war. Years earlier, he had learned his martial lessons while fighting the likes of Napoleon. So when writing of retreat, Clausewitz was also writing about the evidence that he had gathered by participating in the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Clausewitz observed firsthand the retreats of his own Prussian forces in the face of French advances. And then later on, he observed French retreats while himself advancing against the opponent, in the company of his Russian employers.

The Strength of the Army

In the comment quoted above, Clausewitz was writing in general terms about the meaning of retreat to an army “when a battle is lost.” Clausewitz used a physical analogy to describe the event. “The strength of the army is broken,” he said. That is, in the context of what Clausewitz knew, the military practice was that an army would be thrown into a battle. And like a wave lapping upon a shore, the army would expend its strength and energy in the advance. But eventually, in the Clausewitzian view, even the most powerful wave has spent its energy and reached the furthest advance that its leading edge will ever travel. If the army achieves its objectives before it expends its energy, then it will have been victorious. But if the army fails to achieve its goals, and is in turn counterbalanced by the strength of the opposing forces, then the battle may be lost.

Unlike an inanimate wave, however, in the view of Clausewitz, an army possesses “moral,” as well as physical, strength. Clausewitz considered the moral component to be among the greatest of factors in deciding the outcome of any battle or campaign. When these strengths are gone, and particularly when the moral component is exhausted, it is imperative to retreat “until the balance of power is reestablished.” Otherwise, one risks the “absolute destruction” of the force.

The Role of the Commander

In an orderly campaign, it falls to the commander to understand the fluid situation of a battle, and to know when the moral and physical strength of his army’s effort has been exhausted. And then it falls to the commander to call the retreat. In other words, retreat is an option of command. Retreat is a discrete operational maneuver within the context of a campaign. A commander could, of course, choose not to retreat but instead to fight on with an exhausted army. This has happened many times throughout history, usually with terrible results.

And in such circumstances of fighting on, Clausewitz is clear: “A second battle without the help of new and more favorable factors would mean outright defeat, perhaps even absolute destruction” of the army. Clausewitz calls this “a military axiom.” So the words “never call retreat” may make for fine lyrics and an inspiring song, but they are also bad military doctrine.

Retreat Has Its Uses

Clausewitz was not writing about retreat simply for the sake of explaining the tactic. Embedded in all of what Clausewitz wrote is an appreciation of how any discrete aspect of warfighting, such as a battle that is lost, fits into and contributes to an overall strategy. Why did he focus on the circumstance when “the strength of the army is broken”? Clausewitz wrote this because he wanted to build another argument upon this point. No general, in other words, should accept a “second battle without the help of new and more favorable factors,” lest that second engagement lead to defeat and destruction.

Thus does Clausewitz connect the tactical level of combat to the larger theme of an operation, and the operation to the campaign, the campaign to the strategic outcome. This was the point of Clausewitz. What is the desired strategic outcome? If a retreat will get you there, then take the retreat. Live to fight another day. Otherwise, the imprudent or impulsive commander risks losing the entire army, and even worse, being annihilated.

Clausewitz on a Larger Scale

Let us apply Clausewitz’s form of thinking to an even larger scale. What is to become of a nation that has overinvested itself in empire? What happens when it dawns upon the leadership of a nation, let alone if this notion becomes fixed in the collective mind of its people or its enemies, that the world of yesterday has passed? What are the manifestations of the decline of a great nation?

A great nation in decline may find itself deep in unpayable debt, for whatever reason. Or that nation may awaken to the realization that its key supplies of critical resources are depleting. Or its industries are obsolescent and falling behind in the competition for world markets. Or perhaps it is a profound demographic shift that begins to become manifest. Joseph Tainter has written a fine book on this very subject, called The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Perhaps the point of a nation’s decline starts to come home with the realization that the nation is involved in an unwinnable war, in a distant locale, such as Thucydides described in The Peloponnesian War concerning the Athenian expedition to distant Sicily. If the Athenians were in Sicily to fight, then they were too few against a fearsome horde. If the Sicilians were in Sicily simply to die, then they were far too many and being squandered by the hubris of commanders safe at home.

And on the home front, the populace dwells in self-delusion over some mythical past, living off of a dwindling inheritance of greatness and glory earned by others. What is one to do? Can a nation, let alone its leaders, surrender its memories to the absolute reality of its collective predicament? Or to ask the question with more of an edge on it, can a nation fundamentally alter the self-destructive patterns that will lead to its eventual defeat upon the world stage, if not to that nation’s destruction? Can fate be pre-empted?

The Essential Ingredient for Survival: Not Destroying Yourself

Does a nation possess what is, at root, the essential ingredient for survival? Is it willing to change? Can it refrain from destroying itself?

Perhaps you are wondering by now, dear readers, if I am writing indirectly about the U.S. war in Iraq. Well, yes, but it does not end with that one episode in that one nation. The U.S. is, and has been for many decades, sustaining itself and its empire on borrowed money and imported, and depleting, oil supplies. At what point will the self-destructive fiscal and monetary policies end? When will the energy policies swing toward recognizing the looming decline in available oil supply, at almost any price? What kind of systemic shock will it take?

Yes, the war in Iraq is one manifestation of a nation that has mislearned its own history and has extended itself too far in an effort to do too much. But as my good friend Bill Bonner likes to say, “Every empire finds a way to destroy itself.” And there are many ways to do so, notes Bill, with one of the easiest ways being “to invade Mesopotamia and conquer Baghdad.”

Think about it. The Greeks conquered Mesopotamia, as did the Romans. The Greeks, under Alexander, were smart enough to move on to the east through Persia and to conquer Afghanistan and advance into India. The Romans invaded several times, but were smart enough to withdraw from Mesopotamia shortly after winning their war. But in the past two millennia, Persians, Mongols, and Turks have overrun the place, to their eventual regret. In the 20th century, it was the British who expended their army in the deserts of Mesopotamia, and in the 21st century, it is now the turn of the Americans.

The Problem With Iraq

As columnist George Will recently noted, “The ISG’s central conclusion is that the problem with Iraq is the Iraqis.” If you do not quite understand George Will’s comment, then read the recently released report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG). All of 44 months after the U.S. invasion and conquest, the Iraqi security forces are a disaster. Civil society has broken down. What mere neglect and simple negligence do not do to degrade infrastructure the saboteurs of the insurgency are completing.

The U.S.-trained Iraqi army, when it shows up for work, mostly cannot fight. According to the ISG report, the Iraqi army cannot sustain operations, has essentially no logistical pipeline, cannot maneuver, has poor communications systems, cannot offer indirect fire support or air support, has exceedingly limited medical capabilities, and is evidently not capable of defending whatever passes for an Iraqi national state. And to achieve this calamitous end, the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars that it borrowed form the Chinese and others.

The solution? According to the ISG report, one important option is to spend more money and embed U.S. “trainers” within the Iraqi army. Is this the win-win solution to an otherwise lose-lose situation? And now, close on the heels of the ISG report comes Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq to say that such a result, embedding U.S. trainers, “insults the Iraqi nation” because it means “foreign officers will be commanding the Iraqi army.” On the one hand, no, not quite. But on the other hand, yes, commanding elements of the Iraqi army, such as it is.

Back to Clausewitz

Why do I write about Clausewitz, dear readers? Many of you have asked the question in your e-mail to me. Well, Clausewitz wrote about strategy, about setting goals and achieving them. And he wrote about achieving victory and avoiding defeat.

So I write about Clausewitz because he mastered the strategic concept of war, and did so in the context of a modern intellectual era that immediately predated the oil age. Neither Napoleon, who invaded Russia, nor the Russians, who chased Napoleon out, had motorized vehicles. So from the perspective of Clausewitz, strategy was strategy, war was war, fighting was fighting, and the results were apparent to the interested observer. And as with many workable theories, when you clean them up and strip them down to their essence, what was true in a pre-oil age will tend to be true in a post-Peak Oil age. That is, there is a basic accuracy to the observations of Clausewitz.

When Clausewitz discussed the strength of an army, and in particular its “physical” and “moral” strength, he made a powerful point. Applying this analogy to current times, are U.S. forces lacking in “physical strength” in their efforts in Iraq? No, I don’t think so. The U.S. troops are strong and well equipped. Their equipment is good, if well worn. And as outgoing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once noted to the troops, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have.” And that person was fortunate to go to war with the army that he had, because it provided a quick victory in the opening phases. It was the endgame that failed, but that is another discussion for another time.

You Go to War With What You Have

But you also go to war, dear readers, with the leadership you have, not the leadership you might wish you had. And here is where, or so it appears to at least one observer, the “moral” strength behind the effort in Iraq has been spent. No, it is not as simple as saying that the U.S. forces failed to find those elusive WMDs. And it is not correct to twist words and say that the “morality” of the war (which is quite a different thing than the “moral strength” of the army) was compromised by one combat event or another, or one unfortunate story or another from the front lines.

The war in Iraq is just not working, for whatever reason. You know it, I know it, the soldiers who e-mail me know it, the Iraqis appear to know it, and most other people in the rest of the world seem to know it. So it seems to me that we have to get back to what Clausewitz wrote. That is, to continue the fight “without the help of new and more favorable factors would mean outright defeat, perhaps even absolute destruction. That is a military axiom.”

So we want to avoid “absolute destruction.” And what is the next step, in the view of Clausewitz? As I noted at the beginning of this article, “It is in the nature of things that a retreat should be continued until the balance of power is reestablished.”

What is this “balance of power” that needs to be reestablished? It is very important not to think of it solely in the propensity to employ a military approach to the nation’s foreign policies. Yes, a year from now there might be U.S. forces in several strategic “Fort Apaches” in southern Iraq, or in nominally friendly Kurdistan, and in traditionally friendly Kuwait, or recently friendly Qatar, or offshore in the Persian Gulf. (Note the adjective “Persian.”) But this is just part of the equation.

That is, the war in Iraq has damaged the U.S. in many ways, both economic and political, but national debt and depletion of energy resources have the potential to destroy the nation. Thus, even more important over the long term than whatever happens in Iraq in the next six months (unless, of course, you or a member of your family happen to be serving in Iraq) is for the U.S. to get its monetary and energy policies straightened out.

This will require the U.S. to retreat from its horrific, consumption-biased economic and energy policies and follies of the past 50 years or so and move toward economic and energy policies that focus on domestic investment in capital projects. This means rebuilding a national industrial and energy infrastructure, to include greatly advanced investment in energy conservation and production of alternative energy resources. It means more insulation, more windmills, more solar, more of anything that will substitute for imported oil.

The U.S., as a nation, is a reflection of an immense amount of policy hubris and false illusion. This has been so in war; in peace; in its economy; in its narcissistic, late-20th century conception of so-called “American Exceptionalism.” (If we as a nation ever were exceptional, we are not anymore.) The misunderstanding of the nation’s history has thus deluded, if not blinded, many leaders and much of the population to the longer-term consequences. And as one bad policy compounds another, the necessary reassessment never seems to occur.

Never call retreat? Sometimes, retreat is the wisest of choices. A timely retreat can be the essence of sound strategy, I read in Clausewitz. Thank you for reading Whiskey & Gunpowder.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
December 12, 2006