The Art of War for Dummies

Military precision is to precision what Kenny G is to jazz. So it is that the art of war – known in our command and staff colleges as operational art – has a language so vague that it’s useless.

Take the term center of gravity. Everyone concurs that it is a vital concept, but nobody agrees on what it means. A Marine will tell you there can only be one center of gravity, but that’s because Marines can only think about one thing at a time (loving apologies to Staff Sgt. Joe Cleveland). An Air Force pilot will tell you a center of gravity is anything he can bomb, so you need to buy him a lot of expensive bombers so he can bomb everything. A naval aviator will tell you the center of gravity is always an aircraft carrier, even in land warfare. If you ask an intelligence officer what a center of gravity is he’ll tell you it’s classified so don’t quote him by name, and if you ask an Army general what a center of gravity is he’ll start breathing through his mouth.

No wonder the dummies running our woebegone wars can’t find their way out of Iraq or Afghanistan with a map and a flashlight.

Some desk commandos in the Pentagon think the center of gravity in Afghanistan is the Taliban. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen says the Afghan people are “the real centers of gravity." Sen. John Kerry says the strategic center of gravity in Afghanistan is Pakistan, an observation that explains much about his track record at crafting winning strategies.

The 19th-century Prussian general and philosopher Carl von Clausewitz defined "center of gravity" (Schwerpunkt) as “the point against which all our energies should be directed." Clausewitz also established that “war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means” and that "the political object" must determine "the military objective to be reached." It doesn’t take a cosmology major to figure out that an enemy’s center of gravity is the main obstacle between our objective and us, and that our center of gravity is the asset that will achieve our objective.

Perhaps it’s understandable that our military and political leaders are so confused about the centers of gravity in the Bananastans. Clausewitz tells us that “strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war" and that "the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it." National Security Adviser James Jones and his White House war wonks unveiled our new Bananastan strategy in March, and its "realistic and achievable objectives" are unadulterated delirium.

We can’t create "an effective government in Afghanistan" or a "stable constitutional government in Pakistan." "Disrupting terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan" won’t "degrade any ability they have to plan and launch international terrorist attacks." The only thing today’s terrorists need to plan and launch international attacks is an iPhone; they don’t need to hunker down in a mountaintop cave on the far side of the Khyber Pass to use one of those things. They have freedom of action to operate from front row center at Bob Redford’s film festival in the Rockies if they choose to. "Involving the international community to actively assist in addressing these objectives" won’t be of any help. The Bananastan strategy objectives are so fantastic that the intergalactic community from the Star Trek universe couldn’t help us achieve them.

Not even the Vulcans could derive logical centers of gravity from the war aims the Jones gang has dreamed up. Spock himself would blanch at the thought of crafting measures of effectiveness to determine whether or not we’re making progress toward achieving such cockamamie goals; but Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our new top Bananastan general, has taken a shot at it. "The measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his June 2 confirmation hearing. "It will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence."

Not a single member of that committee had sufficient intellect or spine to ask McChrystal how many shielded Afghans, in his opinion, might constitute victory.

Centers of gravity can change over time, space, and levels of war. That sounds more complex than a double-decker 3-D chess tournament at first, but it’s reasonably simple. Folks who can spell their names correctly will catch on to the time and space model quickly enough. Next week’s umpteenth reoccupation of al-Kaboom, for example, will have different centers of gravity than today’s air raid on the terrorist camp that’s camouflaged as a Muslim wedding chapel. The basic levels of war are the tactical, operational, and strategic. The tactical level is where combat takes place, and the strategic level is where military actions achieve (or fail to achieve) a war’s political aims. Tactical actions are planned and coordinated to achieve strategic goals at the operational level.

Tactical and operational centers of gravity consist of some type of armed force. To the U-boat skipper bent on sinking a supply convoy, the enemy center of gravity is the convoy’s destroyer escort. An operational center of gravity may be the armored division that blocks us from capturing a major oil field, or an air defense system that thwarts our efforts to bomb key infrastructure.

Strategic centers of gravity are always political leadership. Common military wisdom deems that popular support or national resources or the media can be strategic centers of gravity, but common military wisdom is all too common and none too wise. Population, resources, and so on may be critical factors – strengths, weaknesses, or critical vulnerabilities – but they are only important as they affect political leadership. The obsession of Mullen and McChrystal with the Afghan population is cause for grave concern. A population may influence leadership with its vote or by storming the palace, but it is your enemy’s leadership, not its angry mob, that can produce the political behavior you want. The effect of popular opinion is minimal in oppressive nations, but its influence is overrated even in so-called liberal democracies. In the last two federal elections, Americans overwhelmingly voted for the antiwar agenda. For all the good it did us, we all might as well have cast our ballots in Florida.

The overarching strategic importance of political leadership makes you want to think very, very hard before you charge off with a goal of regime-change, as our Mesopotamia mistake so vividly illustrates. And the puppets we propped up in the Bananastans haven’t done so well either, have they? That crazy so-and-so McChrystal told the BBC on Friday that the Bananastan bog-down “will go on until we achieve the kind of progress we want to achieve. It won’t be short.”

Of course it won’t be short. No American conflict is short in the long war era, even though the oldest warfare sage available to us, Sun Tzu, famously warned that "no nation ever profited from a long war."

And as the living sage Pete Seeger famously asks, when will we ever learn?

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.