Monday, August 15, 2011

Post-Clausewitzean Bebop in the New American Century

16 Aug. 2011

by Jeff Huber

This is the first part of an extended essay on post-modern American imperialism. 

A 21st century sound bite summarizing the work of 19th century Prussian philosopher Carl von Clausewitz says that war is the pursuit of policy goals through violence.  And the nutshell version of the ancient Chinese martial sage Sun Tzu admonishes us to charge downhill, not uphill.  How ironic it is, then, that in the neoconservative age, history’s most powerful nation pursues a policy of persistent violence for no reason that one could imagine a rational nation might pursue, and does so with strategies that consistently charge uphill when downhill alternatives abound.  Even more of a wry puzzle is that the nation that spends more on weaponry and its supporting gizmology than the rest of the world combined is locked in a seemingly eternal stalemate with adversaries who have no defense budget whatsoever.

Let them eat merde.
History is rife with examples of empires that became footnotes in later empires’ histories because they lacked the wisdom to understand that the might of arms that brought them to glory was insufficient alone to sustain them, and that the inability to adeptly exercise other forms of power would turn their military prowess into the vulnerability that would prove their downfall.

To deliberately misquote Mark Twain, history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes mighty often.  The present point in our American saga resonates of the sick wet sound of imperial titans of yore flopping belly first on their own swords.  Two of the most pertinent case studies in this regard are the Napoleonic and Roman Empires.      

From 1789 to 1799 the French staged a bloody revolution to establish a republic and free themselves of an oppressive absolute monarchy that had reigned for centuries.  Within five years they had placed themselves under the rule of a warlord emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.  In the name of preserving the French democracy he had already snuffed, Napoleon set about conquering all of Europe.  Napoleon ruled his extended domain with brass-knuckled brutality, imposing draconian economic sanctions and other “soft power” measures designed, it seems in retrospect, to compel his satellite states to revolt against him and his puppets. 

Napoleon made a Théâtre de l'Absurde display of diplomatic attempts to keep things going the way he liked, but he wasn’t any good at it.  As a Naval War College professor once put it, Napoleon liked to do what he was good at, which was shoot all the horses and then put on his lead boots and start kicking.  Napoleon kept kicking until his dead ponies finally reached up and bit him in the âne.  The universal animus held against the French is a direct result of Napoleon’s fist-first foreign policies; to this day the French make the Germans seem cuddly in comparison. 

As empire builders are wont to do, Napoleon over reached his financial and military limits.  Casual history buffs know of his final defeat in 1815 by Britain’s Duke of Wellington at Waterloo. But what really undermined Napoleon’s hegemony was the Peninsular War (1807-1814), the counterinsurgency quagmire he stumbled into on The Iberian Peninsula.  With help from Britain, Spain and Portugal were able to conduct a guerilla warfare campaign against French occupation that eroded Napoleon’s resources and led to his ultimate downfall. 

12 years of Napoleonic Wars left an unstable Europe, and a France that was long on arrogance but short on anything to be arrogant about and that would need to be bailed out of two world wars by an upstart nation on another continent.

The ancient Romans punted away their republic for a “dictator in perpetuity” named Julius Caesar, a self-promoting wartime general whose victories had made Rome a global power.  Caesar met an untimely end when he collided with a legislature’s worth of vintage Italian cutlery, but his adopted son Augustus carried on the line of “unitary executives” and the Romans continued to live by the sword until they died from it.  Rome’s military, especially the Praetorian Guard, became the empire’s predominant political faction.  As renaissance political scientist Niccolò Machiavelli noted, the Praetorians became “insolent and formidable, not only to the senate but to the emperors themselves.”

No emperor could survive, much less rule, without the allegiance and support of the Praetorian Guard and the Legions.  If the Guard didn't like an emperor, they whacked the guy.  Though the Senate continued to be an equal branch of government in name it was really just a vehicle through which emperors exercised an autocratic power that was, in fact, the bidding of the military.

Dick Cheney institutionalizes
American "cement shoes"
The military’s financial shenanigans wrecked Rome’s economy, and infighting among segments of the Guard and Legions led to the break-up of the empire.  By Machiavelli’s day, Italy was a surly collection of warring principalities whose exploits resembled, not altogether surprisingly, a season summary of The Sopranos.  Lack of political unity and the unholy meddling of the Catholic Church in state affairs transformed once mighty Italy into the court jester of the international stage.  Upon learning that Italy had thrown in with Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill quipped, “It’s only fair.  We had to have them in the last war.” 

The New American Centurions, the neoconservatives, aim to ensure U.S. domination of the world through military occupation and persistent low-level armed conflict.  They manipulate the support of a largely passive population through a combination of fear of the ubiquitous “them,” myopic patriotism and religious fervor—a propaganda cocktail of stars-and-stripes-and-Jesus-versus-the-evildoers-forever.  Our legislature has ceded virtually every one of its powers—except the ones that allow its members to draw salaries, benefits and retirements—to a unitary executive, and the conservatively slanted Supreme Court is all too happy to help construct a post-modern America that is a republic in name only, a thinly disguised autocracy in which the executives are every bit the handmaiden of their country's warmonger as Roman emperors were.  

Our lavish martial expenditures—by some credible analyses total military related spending accounts for more than half of the federal budget—have our world’s largest economy heading nose first for the bottom of the pool.  What little diplomacy we practice is of the “make them an offer they can’t accept” variety.  We insist on negotiating conditions that no one in their right minds would accept, then we say we tried diplomacy and it didn’t work and we revert back to Plan A. 

Neocon military strategist
Fred Kagan
Armed force is the only foreign policy tool we know how to use, and its effectiveness has diminished through the vanishing point and emerged on the counterproductive scale.  Our military endeavors not only can’t defeat our enemies, they actually create more enemies.  We conduct our wars according to doctrines like Shock and Awe and Network-Centric Warfare and COIN (aka Counterinsurgency) that can best described as post-Clausewitzean bebop theory, strategies so convoluted and self-contradicting that the lysergically inspired brainiacs who conjured them up can’t even explain them to each other.  Today’s American cannons of armed conflict are guidelines not to win wars, but to insure that then never end.

If America avoids fading away into history’s appendix of asterisk items, it will only be because the rest of the world realizes that we are too big to fail: If we perish from the face of the earth, who will buy everybody else’s exports?

Next: All that Clausewitz Jazz

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) is author of the critically lauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon on America’s rise to global dominance. 


  1. Very good post sir.
    Indeed, the country that out spends the rest of the world combined for military and its toys is stuck in an endless war with a gang that has zero military budget. Amazing isn't it? And yet they keep telling us that this is NOT another Vietnam. Really? I served in Vietnam with 5th Marines and this sure looks to be a repeat.
    The most "advanced" military in the world up against a rag tag bunch of people with AK-47's. Yep, Vietnam all over again. Just change the setting from jungle to mountains and the adversary from VC to Taliban.
    We never learn. We don't even know our own history. Back in the late 1770's a bunch of farmers, shop keepers, and such fought the British empire to win their revolution. The "guerrilla" (aka, the home team) will win in the end.

  2. 20/20 vision, Commander Huber. Let me say here and now that I have really appreciated your posts these last few years. I don't see the way out of this demonstrably predictable end-game: once things have been bent out of line far enough maybe you just run out of levers you can work to fix things up, and it's uncontrolled descent from then on in. Luckily you've shown me the exit, I've pulled the cord, and I'm prepared to put out fires on the ground. What's more I've got a survival kit of memorable printable expletives for when the going gets tough. Excellent. Thank you, Commander!

  3. Charlie,

    I'm reminded of the passage in Catch-22 where an old Italian bar keeper tells Yossarian how the conquerors come and go but the locals always win in the end.


    You've touched on the core of my political ambitions; the only thing I'll ever run for is shelter.

  4. For all the eroding of Napoleon’s resources the Peninsular War did, in 1812 he was still able to raise an army 550,000 strong for what he thought would be a mere cabinet war.

    What more realistically undermined Napoleon’s hegemony was losing 175,000 horses in Russia that were the only thing he could not make up for with still wider requisitions and/or conscription.

  5. THCT

    Napoleon also, coincidentally, had a ferocious unemployment problem.

  6. RE: Your picture of Neocon military strategist Fred Kagan
    MY COMMENT: There must be some kind of mistake. Fred Kagan has a much fatter (more blubbery) neck! It's virtually his trademark.

  7. Heh. This was taken in his younger, thinner days. Smoking kept the fat off of him, they say. ;-)


  8. Woah! That short history lesson I suspect was not altogether comprehensive. Some episodes of inner-European and inter-Imperial powerplay with lots of dead people on the side seem to have been left out. But it's funny nevertheless. But hard on the French. And who wouldn't agree to a strongman taking over after several years of Jacobian (Neocon) nonstop use of the Guillotine.


    Inflation and the Fall of the Roman Empire:

  9. One thing about endless wars Jeff... It is that for some establishments/corporations they can be very profitable...

    War is a bit like whaling... Once nobody wanted/needed dead whales anymore the whaling industry lobbied the government and dead whales became subsidized.... The government bought the dead whales and the industry lived on... Dog food and fertilizer became a bit cheaper....

  10. Dude,

    You make a good point. Summarizing things like the Napoleonic and Roman empires in a couple paragraphs of a thousand-word essay is fraught with peril nonpareil. Nonetheless, I think this blink-of-an-eye view revealed the parts American need to see to understand the dangerous parallels in how empires end; to see how the empire they let their "leaders" build from a faro deck is about to end.

  11. Another superb post Jeff. Too bad we can't get it printed and distributed into the kind of media our passive population reads (if they read). They might actually get ticked off enough to do something about it (other than changing the channel).

    You and Dave are on the right path. Seek shelter from the storm that surely is breaking around all of us!


  12. Fantastic articles. May I repost this series (all 3) on the FM website (with credit and links back here)?

    Posts about military theory:

    Authors: hrrp://


    (OK to delete this comment; it's not intended to promote the FM website)

  13. Sure, FM, I'd be delighted if you did that. Thanks.