by Jeff Huber

John McCain…knows how to win a war.

–Sarah  Palin

My matriculation at the United States Naval War College left me with an indelible regard  for the wisdom of Ernie Pyle’s admonition that in war “nobody really knows what he’s doing.”  As a scholarly discipline, war doesn’t even have a coherent vocabulary.  Almost everyone agrees that “center of gravity” is a vital concept, and that it must always be the object of our efforts, but almost nobody agrees on what a center of gravity is.

If you ask a Marine Corps warfare expert, he’ll tell you there can only be one center of gravity, but that’s only because Marines can’t remember more than one.  If you ask a naval aviator, he’ll say the center of gravity is always an aircraft carrier.  An Air Force general will tell you that a center of gravity is anything he can bomb, which is just about everything, so you better buy him a whole lot of expensive bombers so he can bomb all the centers of gravity and a whole lot of expensive fighters to keep the expensive bombers from getting shot down.  If you ask any Army general who’s been involved in running the Iraq war what a center of gravity is, he’ll start breathing through his mouth, and if you ask John McCain he’ll tell you the story about the prison guard who drew a crucifix in the dirt with his toe.  

If you ask me*, I’ll tell you that centers or gravity are related to warfare’s objectives, and that grasping the center of gravity concept is essential to understanding why military force cannot achieve the goals of the kind of war we’re supposedly fighting right now.  

Staying Centered

Centers of gravity may vary across the different levels of war, which are commonly labeled the tactical, operational and strategic levels.  Simple Simon would tell you that the tactical level is where combat takes place, that the strategic level is where military actions achieve (or don’t achieve) the political aims of war (as per Clausewitz), and the operational level is where the commander and his staff coordinate tactical actions in order to achieve the strategic requirements.  Centers of gravity may also change over space and time, but those factors are a bit too esoteric for Simon to explain, so we’ll skip over them for now.  

Whatever the place, time or level, your center of gravity is that part of your assets and resources that will accomplish your objective(s), and the enemy’s center of gravity is that part of his assets that can thwart your aims.  At the tactical and operational levels, centers of gravity are always some unit or collection of military force.  If Simon is skipper of the U-29 and wants to sink an allied supply convoy, the center of gravity he must defeat is the convoy’s destroyer escort.

At the strategic level, in my very strong opinion, the center of gravity is always political leadership.  Some will argue that strategic centers of gravity include things like economy and public opinion, but those things are more accurately described as critical factors: strengths, weaknesses and critical vulnerabilities.  Failed economies and lack of public support may influence the political leadership’s behavior, but it may not.  It’s often asserted that totalitarian leaders are less vulnerable to failed economies and loss of popular backing than leaders of democratic societies, but look at our young Mr. Bush; a shipwrecked economy and record low poll numbers haven’t deterred him from pursuing a tyrannical agenda.  At the end of the day, your strategic objective is to coerce your enemy into a political behavior of some sort, and the only the enemy’s political leadership can effect that.  

That, in large part, is why going to war with the goal of regime change is so foolish: once you lop off the political coherence of your adversary, you’re left with an angry mob on your hands, and as we’ve seen so clearly in the last five years and change, an angry mob is an ugly thing.  

Herding Cats

Centers of gravity can be concentrated (massed) or dispersed; most lie somewhere on the spectrum in between.  Before he died and was still in charge of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was a stellar example of a concentrated strategic center of gravity.  The guy was a tsar class autocrat, and when he wanted to make something happen in his country, he didn’t wait for anybody to tell him “Simon says.”  At the opposite end of the spectrum is what we’ve had for an Iraqi government since our Army staged the toppling of Hussein’s statue in Baghdad.  The body politic is a field of factions tangled like a goat rope, tied in a Gordian knot and wrapped in a Mobius strip, and that’s just the official central government.  The real power still lies with mullahs and tribal leaders.  

Neocons will argue that what we have now is better that dealing with Hussein, but they’re daft; Hussein had already complied with our stated political aim for the invasion–he’d abandoned his weapons of mass destruction program–before we even invaded him.  Now that our true aim of establishing a permanent robust military footprint in Iraq has become apparent, the closest thing Iraq has to a head of state–Nuri al Maliki–is telling us to pack our caissons and hit the dusty trail, and it doesn’t sound like he’s just saying that to impress some girl he met last month on MySpace.  

As for operation and strategic centers of gravity, we scattered them far and wide when we told the Iraqi army to go home.  Now the “enemy’s” combat power is so dispersed that it no longer presents a center of gravity that can be decisively beaten.  Our forces are trapped in a cat rodeo; they’ll never get the adversaries back in the corral because they multiply faster than our cowboys can rope them or run them over with lawn mowers.

Lack of an operational center of gravity to attack is the defining characteristic of counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, low intensity conflict, etc.  Superpowers who fight these kinds of adversaries never come out smelling floral.  As co-creator of the Fourth Generation Warfare concept William Lind wrote recently, “invaders and occupiers have almost never won against a guerrilla-style war of national liberation. Not even the best counterinsurgency techniques make much difference.”  

How Terrorist Groups End, a recent Rand Corporation report authored by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki, studied 648 groups that existed between 1968 and 2006 and analyzed how their terror activities terminated.  Only seven percent desisted because of military force applied against them.  83 percent of the success against terror organizations came from policing and political actions.  “Against most terror groups,” the report states, “military force is usually too blunt an instrument.”  It notes that “even precision weapons have been of limited use against terrorist groups,” and that the “use of substantial U.S. military power against terrorist groups also runs a significant risk of turning the local population against the government by killing civilians.”  Regarding use of American troops overseas to combat al Qaeda, the report says the best approach is “a light U.S. military footprint or none at all.”

“Our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism,” Jones and Libicki write.  They also admonish that “Military force usually has the opposite effect from what is intended: It is often over-used, alienates the local population by its heavy-handed nature, and provides a window of opportunity for terrorist-group recruitment.”  

Many of us had arrived at these conclusions long before the Rand report hit the streets; but backed by the aegis of Rand analysis, those conclusions should have grabbed the attention of top level decision makers like, say for example, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who aspires to be commander in chief and who consistently reminds us how smart and experienced he is on foreign policy matters.  But no, John McCain blithely continues to tout military force as the key to conquering al Qaeda and its evildoing cohorts.  

A popular adage says that generals always plan for the last war.  American generals and their supporting warmongery always plan for the last world war; we’ve been training and equipping our military to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan since we defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, nations who had the kind of political structures and war making machinery that conventional military forces were designed to defeat.  If John McCain knows how to win a war it’s World War II, and that doesn’t do him or the rest of us a whole lot of good.

Plus,  John McCain was five years old when World War II started and he’d only just turned nine when it ended, so he may not even remember how he won it.

* Most of my warfare theories are heavily based on the work of Professor Milan Vego of the U.S. Naval War College.  

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword . Jeff’s novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America’s rise to global dominance, is on sale now.  Also catch Scott Horton’s interview with Jeff at Antiwar Radio.

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