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By John Helmer, Moscow

There’s not been an American war which John Lewis Gaddis doesn’t think was a good idea, speaking as if he was Thucydides, the ancient Athenian general and historian of whopping mistakes of calculation in warfare.

Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face was not an idea Thucydides thought a good one. Nor was he as blind to the significance of losing wars for Athenian strategy as Gaddis is  blind to the string of lost (outright or unwon and continuing) wars fought by the US — the Korean War, Cuban War, Vietnam War, Afghan War, Iraq War, Libyan War, Syrian War, and war against Russia. Gaddis even disapproves Robert F. Kennedy’s 1962 public acknowledgement that the US war against Mexico which resulted in the annexation of Texas was “unjustified”.

By the Gaddis standard of strategic success – that’s outcome matching aim, cost proportionate to gain — the last wars which Washington won were those against Mexico, Spain, the Philippines, the Caribbean Banana Wars, and the American civil war (Gaddis assumes the Indian wars were strategic successes too, but doesn’t dare say so in print.). He concedes World War I and World War II were strategic successes for the US in the sense that compared to the American allies, for a relatively small expenditure of men, blood and materiel, the US took an enormous cash profit and investment dividend, not to mention imperial sway. For the textbook on why the US is now losing that, Gaddis is the perfect specimen; this is because his primer reveals the teacher can’t recognize the writing on the wall, er blackboard.

Gaddis (right), 77, is a Yale University professor of military and naval history, and originator of a 16-year old course entitled “Studies in Grand Strategy”. He has just published his summary lessons in a book, “On Grand Strategy”.  Understandably, if you know what I mean, the New York Times recommends the book for “timely advice to Americans that lasting victory comes from winning what you can rather than all that you want.” Just as understandably, the Wall Street Journal (proprietor Rupert Murdoch) claims it’s a “book that should be read by every American leader or would-be leader”, while the London Times (proprietor Rupert Murdoch) echoes:  “an extraordinary treatise on the need to teach the principles of sound strategy to today’s leaders.”

Gaddis is jealous as academics are, and a wee provincial. He ignores Englishman Lawrence Freedman whose grander “Strategy: A History” appeared in 2013; and Transylvanian Edward Luttwak whose multilingual researches “Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire” and “Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire” teach quite different lessons. Gaddis’s likes are mostly the long dead Thucydides and short-lived Prussian Carl von Clausewitz. He prefers his sources at second, third and fourth hand like Saint Augustine, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Isaiah Berlin. He borrows quotes from them to make points he claims they thought of,  but allows no space for the historical evidence to substantiate his or their interpretations. Gaddis means you to take his judgements on trust. Yale undergraduates have earned A grades for doing this; reporters employed by Murdoch, too.

Gaddis has a peculiar view of Russia. He is voluble about Lev Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” assessments of the war against Napoleon, but he quite misunderstands what Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov (right) meant by the strategy of the “golden bridge”; to correct, read this. Gaddis ignores every other tsarist, Red Army or current Russian general, but assigns four pages to Joseph Davies, the first US ambassador to Moscow in the Soviet period. Vladimir Lenin gets four mentions; Gaddis claims to be “sure” when he reports Lenin’s thinking as if it were his own. He also adds this fatuity: “Lenin’s specialty was transforming the unexpected into the predetermined.”

As for Joseph Stalin, he rates more mentions, most of them passing except for how nasty he had been to the poet Anna Akhmatova. Gaddis also claims that in March 1941, when President Franklin Roosevelt authorized sending Stalin the warning from himself and Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Adolph Hitler planned to invade soon, Stalin ought to have said thank you – “if he [Stalin’s ambassador in Washington] or his masters were grateful, they didn’t show it. Instead, Stalin himself, still wishfully thinking, signed yet another nonaggression pact, this time with Japan.” The wishful, unhistorical thinking here is Gaddis’s.

It doesn’t improve as the events get closer to Gaddis in age. He assesses Mikhail Gorbachev’s strategy for German reunification and the dismantling of the Soviet Union in a six-word lesson: “to deprive an enemy of its enemy”.

Understanding the enemy’s strategy isn’t what Gaddis means by strategy. What he means is a combination of fatuities and tautologies with the well-known American doctrine of exceptionalism. The fatuities include: “Theory, then, serves practice. And when practice corrects theory…it returns the favour”; “war – explicitly in Clausewitz, implicitly in Tolstoy – must reflect policy”; “the interdependence of time, space, and scale simultaneously reflects choice and necessity”; and “ends, potentially infinite, can never be means, which are poignantly finite”. If America’s future chiefs of the General Staff, not to mention commanders in chief, favourite these texts in their twitter files, the world may prove in due course to be safer – from them.

Why the Gaddis strategy tweets are dangerous war-losers, however, is spelled out in Gaddis’s  three-point doctrine which he attributes to his favourite US president, Abraham Lincoln (right). 1.The winning side is the moral side because God and morality don’t let losers win:  “What Lincoln had shown was the practicality, in politics, of a moral standard”. 2. Without that moral standard, the exercise of US power “in the twentieth century the ‘new world’ couldn’t have repeatedly rescued liberty in the ‘old’.” In New Haven, Connecticut, where Yale is located, the ‘new world’ means the US; the ‘old world’ is everywhere else.

And 3. Lincoln’s method as spelled out by Gaddis: “War powers, Lincoln insisted, could make the unconstitutional constitutional: emancipation was the greatest uncompensated confiscation of private property in American history.” That was then, of course. These days US sanctions against Iran and Russia, plus selective extraterritorial extension of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act across the globe, are much higher priced confiscations by war powers no federal US court has judged, or judged unconstitutional. 

Combine Abe’s – Gaddis is so familiar, he calls Lincoln by his diminutive – moral standard with his war power method, and this is how US strategy winds up today: “Lincoln’s sensitivity to evolving contexts – his ability to let even lethal things grow – kept the war Clausewitzian: saving the state remained his compass, despite the startling expansion of means he employed. Over the next century, American militaries would shrink when possible but snowball when necessary. No one in Lincoln’s time could know the circumstances in which they’d do this. What he showed, though, was that it could be done.”  Simply, this is the exercise of power as demonstration effect and for the sake of the spoils – if you are American, and if you believe you can get away with it.

Ergo, demonstrating US power – armed force, economic warfare, information warfare — is the end in itself, and so the end towards which all strategy must lead. This is the stuff for which Gaddis has received many medals.


Left:  Gaddis received the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush on November 10, 2005.
Right:  Gaddis with Henry Kissinger, who received the New York Historical Society’s History Makers Award, November 7, 2011.      

Perhaps Gaddis’s students and publishers urged him to write a swansong. It is also something Isaiah Berlin, Gaddis’s favourite Englishman, would recognize from the rules of cricket, though Gaddis himself does not. As Gaddis retires from the field, the scoreboard is recording that the rivals of his strategy have run him out for a duck.

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