Brute force and finesse - Part I

The mass media's depiction of Western warfare as fireworks with cruise missiles, bombs and attack helicopter massacres of defenceless people on the ground isn't too far off: The availability of such "overmatch" capabilities provokes an emphasis on brute force.
Everyone can test this all-too human trait on himself or herself: Just play chess against a five year old boy. You won't try any fancy chess tactics (unless you want to teach the same and assuming you don't want to let him win). This also happens in video games, tennis - all competitions. We're only provoked to give our best if victory is really in jeopardy. We prefer to play simple, use brute force, when we're not well-challenged.

The employment of advanced tactics instead of brute force first is thus not only a question of theory, doctrine, training and experience; it's especially dependent on the opposition.

There is at least one more endogenous factor at play, though: Discipline. 
(Self-)Discipline can be used to overcome the tendency towards brute force. It would be overly optimistic to bet on self-discipline because basically life tells us that the world doesn't function like this. So how could one impose discipline on a military's junior and senior leadership?

It's been said that no general ever has declared to have too many capabilities at his disposal. This confirms on one hand the bureaucratic nature of the military (the same can be said of senior civilian bureaucrats), and on the other hand it points at another reason for the emphasis on brute force. More resources at hand means less risks. Less risks means often times losses won't incur which would have incurred with less resources.

This poses a major challenge to attempts to force discipline on leaders regarding the balance between finesse and brute force.

I suppose the military reformers who decry brute force approaches and preach the use of finesse (usually linked to some personal favourite military theory) are doing the labour of Sisyphus: They're preaching against human nature.
An emphasis on finesse in the presence of an available resources overmatch will only become available if leaders' discipline can be enforced through some scheme of punishment and rewards - or maybe through lying at them about the actual scarcity of resources. To teach them finesse some more will yield little, for they know plenty tactics or could devise them on the spot if pressed properly. To simply withhold resources will lead to another suboptimal outcome in which too often tragedies happen because available resources were made unavailable.

How to discipline leaders way beyond superficialities, well into their choice between brute force and finesse, should probably be one of the focal points of military theory development.



  1. For some reason this post got me thinking about the sci-fi series Battletech.

    Before an operation, a number of commanders bid for the honour of leading the operation. Their bids consist of which forces they can complete the operation with, with the lowest bidder (i.e fewest resources) being awarded leadership. The rationale being that the most honour is gained from defeating an enemy while outnumbered, and is somewhat lessened through the fact that not being able to complete an assigned operation leads to an even greater loss of honour than a success would have.

    So now we just need Western armies to adopt this honour "capital" among its leaders...

    1. The units at disposal for an operation aren't mere units. They're humans supposed to command other humans. A corps CO's relationships with his subordinate commanders greatly influences how much he asks of them, when he trusts their confidence or not, when he overrules their decision etc.
      All this would be lost if subordinates were as exchangeable as chess pieces, and military history suggests that his would be a great disadvantage.