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The Dangers of Anti-Intellectualism in Contemporary Western Armies.

"I feel a fundamental crippling incuriousness about our officers, too much body and too little head."

--T.E. Lawrence

Since time immemorial, academics and military professionals have engaged in a heated debate over the real or perceived historic bias against intellectuals in uniform.

In his book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Norman Dixon wrote about a particularly vicious military tradition, the prejudice against education: "(...) those intellectual shortcomings which appear to underlie military incompetence may have nothing whatever to do with intelligence, but usually result from the effect upon native ability of two ancient and related traditions. The first of these, originally founded in fact, is that fighting depends more upon muscle than brain, the second that any show of education is not only bad form, but likely to be positively incapacitating."

Numerous other authors like COL (Retired) Lloyd J. Matthews (a former Parameters editor), condemn military degree collecting, which should not be mistaken for an evidence of intellectuality. In COL Matthews' opinion, advanced degrees are not symbols of social or professional status, but should rather "expand the recipients' intellectual capacities and hone them for professional utilization" (see his article: "The Uniformed Intellectual and His Place in American Arms" published in the July 2002 issue of Army Magazine).

John A. English and Bruce I. Gudmundsson briefly wrote about army intellectual poseurs in their book, On Infantry: "Courtiers rather than warriors, poseurs rather than professionals, they mouthed slogans but understood nothing of principles ... They were marshal in a swaggering sense without the least grasp of the professionalism necessary to the military ..."

This article is not trying to prove that there is a real anti-intellectual bias in contemporary Western armies or that ambitious, career-driven false intellectuals arc purposefully marginalizing the Guderians, Fullers, and T.E. Lawrences of our time. What I will prove, however, is that under the present circumstances, challenged by resourceful, adaptive and determined insurgents in places like Afghanistan, Western armies need intellectuals more than ever. The gunslinger military culture has to be replaced by a subtler approach to warfare.

Industrial-Age Armies

As Martin van Creveld eloquently explained in his remarkable book, Command in War, the Great War was the first conflict that upset the traditional balance between animate and inanimate objects. The war of 1914-1918 heralded the age of the machine, in which inert objects decisively enhanced martial prowess. According to Douglas Porch, in 1915 at Artois, the Germans could place 18 high explosive shells on each yard of front, which naturally requires not only an impressive number of artillery pieces but also a constant stream of ammunition (see "Artois 1915" in The Great War, Perspectives on the First World War, edited by Robert Cowley). The Germans were dwarfed by the British, who at Ypres in the fall of 1917, fired 4.3 million shells with a total weight of more than a 100,000 tons. Twenty-eight years later, during the Vistula-Oder operation of January and February 1945, the Soviets lined an average of 278 artillery tubes on each kilometer of front. "There were also 22 tanks and self-propelled (SP) guns allocated to each kilometre in the initial tactical phase, with some 98 more per kilometre lined up in depth for the operational exploitation," wrote Paddy Griffith in The Ultimate Weaponry. Contemporary Western armies are mechanical juggernauts made vulnerable by their dependence on considerable quantities of ammunition, spare parts and fuel, since a military vehicle that runs out of gas is nothing but a hulk of metal, and so are cannons without ammunition.

A machine-age army will cease to function if the uninterrupted flow of supplies stops. Naturally, such a logistical stream requires meticulous coordination, planning, and rigorous organization. Industrial-age armies often fight their battles in the rear, with pen and paper; they fight a paper war. The direct consequence of the modern approach to warfare was that the methods of the office and of the manufacturing works would come to dominate the battlefield. The result is that, since World War I, military commanders are increasingly becoming managers turning warfare into an industrial type of operation.

Planning from above and centralized control are indicators of an approach to warfare frequently referred to as the "scientific method." It establishes specific mathematical norms for the battlefield. Under the scientific system, meticulously set plans scrupulously carried out are regarded as a way to avoid the unavoidable confusion of the battlefield. Operations are performed in phases, so as to allow for the reestablishment of proper order and control at the end of each phase. Measures of control are established, such as assault lines, assembly areas, approach routes, attack positions, axes and routes, boundaries, killing zones, lines of departure, limits of exploitation, etc.

Industrial-age mass armies are well-organized, well-equipped, well-supplied, and strictly disciplined juggernauts, which makes them highly efficient in high intensity conflicts. They are led from the rear by competent managers supported by large staffs designing strategies and then using sophisticated communication technologies in order to enforce adherence to predetermined plans.

The Allied forces during World War II are the best example of industrial-age mass armies applying the scientific system. What these organizations need, at first glance, are managers and combat leaders, not intellectuals--in other words, men that supply the tools for other men to win battles and, ultimately, wars.

In World War II, technology was instrumental in achieving victory or, as Max Boot wrote in War Made New: " ... technology sets the parameters of the possible; it creates the potential for a military revolution. The extent to which various societies and their armies exploit the possibilities inherent in the new tools of war and thereby create an actual military revolution depends on ... other human factors. Ultimately, a military revolution, like a scientific revolution, demands a 'paradigm shift' from one set of assumptions to another."

Intellectuals are the other human factors. Historically, they thrived first in the Prussian and then the German armed forces, pre-industrial and industrial-age armies which applied a different system in conflicts: war as art.

This method was founded by Prussian Field-Marshall Count Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke (1800-1891), often referred to as Moltke the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, who commanded the German Army at the outbreak of World War I. Moltke is arguably one of the greatest innovators in the history of armed conflict, an almost prophetic figure.

For Moltke, a student of Clausewitz--the great philosopher of war-- rigid systems, such as the scientific method, were anathema: "... [Moltke] held that nothing in war was certain. Therefore he believed that it was impossible to lay down any firm rules. 'In war, as in art', he stated, 'exist no general rules; in neither can talent be replaced by precept' and given the uncertainties of war, he concluded that strategy could be no more than a 'system of expedients,'" wrote Gunther E. Rothenberg in "Moltke, Schlieffen, and the Doctrine of Strategic Envelopment" (Makers of Modern Strategy, edited by Peter Paret).

Moltke, a brilliant intellectual, recognized that the implementation of technology requires radical changes in tactics, strategy, command, and organization. However, as Martin Samuel writes in his book Command or Control? Command. Training and Tactics in the British and German Armies, 1888-1918: "He rejected the idea of telegraphed orders. Given a force of over one million men, as in 1870, moving as several armies spread over a previously-unheard-of front, it was impossible for Moltke to rely on a system of close control and yet still take advantage of fleeting opportunities offered by enemy mistakes. The sheer scale of the problem meant that, even if he were able to identify such opportunities (itself highly unlikely), any detailed orders he might give would long since be out of date by the time they came to be implemented."

Therefore, he did not fear disorder. He accepted it as inevitable and, instead of introducing measures to limit confusion in the combat zone, he decentralized the decision making process at tactical level. Great responsibility was therefore placed on the shoulders of junior leaders with the emphasis being on flexibility, initiative and swift adaptation to the reality of the battlefield. In the command system that he inaugurated, Moltke expressed a philosophy of combat which later became the trademark of German military leadership. His forward-looking philosophy eventually led to the conception of such innovative notions as Innere Fuhrung and Auftragstaktik (mission command or mission tactics), which were key concepts in the Reichswehr, the Wehrmacht, and the Waffen SS and remain as such with the Bundeswehr.


Moltke also created the Prussian general staff, which later became the German general staff, an intellectual powerhouse that for almost a century successfully implemented changes that were considered too radical by other Western armies. One of these radical changes was the Blitzkrieg.

At this point, it should be mentioned that even under the "war as art" method intellectual presence was limited to senior level positions, especially those shaping military doctrine. Junior commanders remained essentially combat leaders.

World War II was a clash of two different martial cultures of two distinct approaches to warfare: the "scientific method" and the "war as art" method. In the end, as Robert M. Citino argued in "Death of the Wehrmacht," an article published in MHQ (The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Autumn 2008), the "scientific method" prevailed, with managers dominating Western armies until their world of military certainties collapsed under the weight of insurgent tactics and strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

War as Theological Exercise

The Western inability to understand the religious man is arguably the foundation of numerous dissents in international relations that will eventually develop into low-intensity conflicts. The situation is complicated even more by the fact that religion is experienced differently in the West and in the East. Most Eastern theologies are mystical, expressing a strict, inflexible attitude, as the personal experience of God can only be institutionalized through dogma (Vladimir Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church). On the other hand, the Western approach to religion is increasingly liberal, based on reason and humanistic values. Therefore, the cultural gap between East and West is increasing, leading--in the global village--to mutual resentment and suspicion.

In the thriving and abounding West, the respect for human life and its protection are one of the main preoccupations of politicians and law enforcement officials and agencies. In the East, and such was the case for the now defunct Emirate of Afghanistan, afterlife is the main concern. Taliban institutions were geared towards preparing the Afghani citizens for the afterlife. For the Taliban, life is merely a test, hence their obsession with "moral corruption." If life is a test, then jihad is the perfect opportunity to pass it. Fighting coalition forces are, for the Taliban, a prodigious opportunity. What really makes them strong is their belief system. Training and equipment are less important to a man of faith. What really counts is the deed, acting upon one's beliefs. Not to mention the fact that their interpretation of the Quran allows them the moral luxury to identify us as monsters, and this greatly facilitates their task when it comes to combat.

Scrutinizing the Taliban's past and present successes without taking into consideration their religious beliefs will offer us only a distorted and incomplete portrayal of their true capabilities. The Taliban is much more than a group of guerrilla fighters; it is an Afghan religious--and by extension, taking into consideration the local cultural context--social, and political phenomenon. Debatably, very few non-Afghans currently fighting the Taliban know that the first government in decades to end the lawlessness and arbitrary power of the warlords was that of the Taliban. The same government managed to restore peace, security, and provide basic services.

In 1994, Mohammed Omar was the village mullah of a small place called Singesar, when: " ... neighbours came to tell him that a commander had abducted two teenage girls, their heads have been shaved and they had been taken to a military camp and repeatedly raped. Omar enlisted some 30 Talibs who had only 16 rifles between them and attacked the base, freeing the girls, and hanging the commander from the barrel of a tank. They captured quantities of arms and ammunition. (...) A few months later, two commanders confronted each other in Kandahar, in a dispute over a young boy whom both men wanted to sodomize. In a fight that followed, civilians were killed. Omar's group freed the boy and public appeals started coming in for the Taliban to help out in other local disputes. Omar had emerged as a Robin Hood figure, helping the poor against the rapacious commanders. His prestige grew because he asked for no reward or credit from those he helped, only demanding that they follow him to set up a just Islamic system," wrote Ahmed Rashid in Taliban.

From the very beginning, the Taliban engaged the local population in a complex political (and implicitly religious) dialogue. Their past and present authority is based on the legitimacy of their discourse, since the Taliban deliver on their promises. They provide Afghans with local Islamic courts, proving that a primitive and brutal jurisprudence is preferable to the absence of justice. And, more importantly, they provide long-term security, without which no society, however rudimentary, can thrive. Perhaps the best-known characteristic of the Taliban has been their willingness to employ violence. Bloodshed always has a universally accepted political or theological justification.


It is now common knowledge that local nationals (LNs) are the center of gravity of any insurgency, since Taliban lines of communications depend on them. Creating a durable fracture between the insurgents and the LNs is synonymous to winning the war. A rupture, however, cannot be achieved as long as we will not engage the LNs in a credible dialogue. That is why we need intellectuals in uniform on the ground--people with innate or developed abilities for negotiation that can speak the language and understand the Afghan society, its culture and its religion. Hunting down insurgents does not work. Even though the violence to which we are exposing the LNs might be legitimate in the West, it is not always perceived as such in Afghanistan. Therefore, it is sometimes viewed as foreign aggression. In order to win the hearts and minds of the LNs, we have to realize that the gunslinger military culture of traditional combat leaders is leading us nowhere.


Contemporary Western armies are composed of thousands of interconnected and fine-tuned little cogs controlled by a supreme management team. General George Patton, arguably America's finest combat general in World War II, said that command is only 10 percent about giving orders and 90 percent about seeing that they were carried out. His philosophy of combat was that of "restrictive control" and "umpiring" and represents the cornerstone of an industrial-age army's fighting spirit. Unfortunately, the outcome of the war in Afghanistan will not be decided by a few major strategic or operational victories but by numerous tactical successes, which means that the management team is no greater than the little cog on the ground in physical proximity and direct contact with the LNs. And that is why, now more than ever before, NATO forces need intellectuals in uniform on the ground--individuals able to engage in meaningful dialogue with the LNs and able to build enduring relationships with the local population. We need officers and NCOs capable of employing not violence but legitimate violence whenever the situation calls for it.

The "war as art" method set up by Moltke was truly revolutionary, as it created a military environment that cultivated creativity, improvisation, inventiveness, and open-mindedness. There is no doubt in my mind that this method would have moved beyond the gunslinger culture in asymmetrical conflicts. However, since in protracted high-intensity conflicts, the scientific method prevailed over it, the war as art method was consigned to the history books.

In Afghanistan, we should adopt a balanced way, avoiding two particularly ineffective approaches: the first one is the gunslinger culture, the other one being the negotiation a l'outrance penchant. Both are unproductive. In Afghanistan, legitimate violence is negotiation.

The scientific method has its own military culture--one that cultivates, in Norman Dixon's words: "an underestimation, sometimes bordering on the arrogant, of the enemy (...), an inability to profit from past experience (...), great physical bravery but little moral courage (...), a love of 'bull,' smartness, precision, and strict preservation of 'the military pecking order' (...), a high regard for tradition and other aspects of conservatism."

Before we can change the way we do business in Afghanistan, we need to change the very military culture that prevents decision makers in the field from being creative thinkers with a firm grasp of the intricacies of insurgencies acquired through incessant study. We often seem to forget that one of the most successful guerrilla fighters was an intellectual: T.E. Lawrence. His major work, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, should be mandatory reading for Infantry officers.


CAPT G. Gabriel Serbu holds a master's degree in war studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. In October 2009, he completed a seven-month tour in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, as the Canadian Battle Group's information operations officer. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Government or the Department of National Defence. He can be reached via e-mail at
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Title Annotation:Training Notes
Author:Serbu, G. Gabriel
Publication:Infantry Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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