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War on Paper vs. Real War

12:47 PM, Feb 14, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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Cover at the Corner Peter Wehner takes Mark Helprin to task for a piece in the Wall Street Journal that, while dealing mainly with the manifold sins of talk radio, also includes the following bit on the conduct of the Iraq war:

To begin with, American columns should have cut through Baghdad after three days and exited three weeks later, leaving Saddam dead and a pliant Iraqi strongman to keep the country harmless or suffer the same quick take-down. Rather than being broken on the wheel of irreconcilable Muslim factions, a supple and intact American power would have shattered Arab elation following Sept. 11, and then by threatening their rule been able to discipline the various police states of the region into eliminating their terrorists. Far more efficient that way, without six and more murderous and unavailing years in which neither a single democracy has appeared nor will one. The surge is merely coincident with a change in Sunni strategy. Instead of watching the U.S. and Iran arm the Shiites for a major sectarian war, the Sunni choose to avail themselves of American arms while simultaneously removing the lunatic jihadists nipping at their heels.

Wehner's critique of this statement deals mainly with the strategic ramifications of such a rapid withdrawal, such as the descent of Iraq into anarchy, the creation of a power vacuum to be filled by al Qaeda, the opportunity for Iran to extend its influence to the far side of the Persian Gulf, etc. All of which is true, but there is another and more general aspect to be considered.

As a military analyst, I see Helprin's prescription for Iraq as breathtaking in both its arrogance and its ignorance of military affairs. It is a striking example of the contrast between what Karl von Clausewitz called the difference between "war on paper" and "real war." Helprin breezily asserts that the U.S."should have cut through Baghdad after three days and exited three weeks later," which makes one wonder if he has ever looked at a map of Iraq and checked out the distances. Not even the Soviet Army, in its deepest Cold War fantasies, ever believed it could advance at such a rate--indeed, not even George Patton's legendary Third Army in World War II was able to do so. As for pulling out in three weeks, this statement merely confirms the old adage that "amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics." If getting to Baghdad was a challenge, getting all our forces back from Baghdad, intact and with all of their supplies and equipment, would have been a prodigy of arms.

A professional looking at Mr. Helprin's plan would only shake his head in disbelief. Helprin seems to think that war is simply a matter of drawing up some plans on a map, handing the plans to the commanders, and telling them to go. It is never so easy, in part because the enemy might have something to say about one's plans, but also because of that pervasive phenomenon that Clausewitz called "friction." In On War (which almost as many claim to have read as claim to have read the Bible), Clausewitz writes, with people like Helprin in mind:

As long as we have no personal knowledge of War [sic], we cannot conceive where these difficulties lie of which so much is said, and what that genius and those extraordinary mental powers required of a general have really to do. All appears so simple, all the requisite branches of knowledge seem so plain, all the combinations so unimportant, that in comparison with them the easiest problem in higher mathematics impress us with a certain scientific dignity. But if we have seen War, all becomes intelligible; and still, after all, it is extremely difficult to describe what it is that brings about this change, to specify this invisible and completely efficient factor.

Every thing is simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine who has not seen War. . . Friction is the only conception which in a general way corresponds to that which distinguishes real War from War on paper. The military machine and all belonging to it is in fact simple and appears on this account to be easy to manage. But let us reflect that no piece of it is one piece, that is tis composed entirely of individuals, each of which keep up its own friction in all directions. . . This enormous friction, which is not concentrated, as in mechanics, at a few points, is therefore everywhere brought into contact with chance, and thus incidents take place upon which it is impossible to calculate, their chief origin being chance. . .