Is Emile Simpson the new Clausewitz?

by on August 11, 2013 at 12:41 pm in Books, Current Affairs, History, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

The new (November 2012) book is War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics, and yes it is an important work.  It is also difficult to excerpt.  Nonetheless I especially liked these two sentences about Afghanistan:

This kind of situation, where sides argue tooth and nail over the meaning of every point or action, is typical of unstable interpretative environments, and those environments are in turn produced when people are insecure about who they are, and what they are about.  Returning to the analogy of sixteenth-century England, we find that a parallel situation would be the debate over the interpretation of the English translation of the Bible in the 1520s and 1530s.

It is in general extremely insightful on the conflict in Afghanistan, where the author has had three tours of duty.  The chapter on the British military campaign in Borneo in the mid-1960s (an oddly neglected historical episode) is also especially good.

Here is FT lunch with Emile Simpson, possibly gated for you.  Excerpt:

In Simpson’s view, one of the biggest mistakes the US has made has been to talk about a “global war on terror”, a phrase he describes as silly because it raises expectations that can never be met. “If you elevate this to a global concept, to the level of grand strategy, that is profoundly dangerous,” he says. “If you want stability in the world you have to have clear strategic boundaries that seek to compartmentalise conflicts, and not aggregate them. The reason is that if you don’t box in your conflicts with clear strategic boundaries, chronological, conceptual, geographical, legal, then you experience a proliferation of violence.”

Here is a very positive TLS review of Simpson’s book., where it is described as one of the half dozen essential works on military strategy since World War II.

Dense reading, but definitely recommended.

Nick_L August 11, 2013 at 1:39 pm

I’m betting not. Clausewitz was a unique product of his times, and things have moved on since then. Far more voices demanding of attention these days, along with many more media channels. This will be on the shelf besides Guderian, Keegan et al, and have significant influence in many important circles, however its not likely that it will displace Clausewitz, Sun Tze or even perhaps Caesar. Or was that a rhetorical question?

anon August 11, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Alternative sub title:

Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Politics as Combat (in Clausewitzian terms, Politics as a continuation of unlimited war).

War on Terror
War on Drugs
War on Poverty
War on Women
War on Christmas
War Against Emus
War on Gaia
War on Homosexuals
War on Graffiti
War on Cancer
etc., etc., ad nauseum

See this 314-page PDF, “The leader’s imperative: Ethics, integrity, and responsibility”, J.C. Ficarrotta, Purdue University Press, especially Ch. 13, “The War Metaphor in Public Policy: Some Moral Reflections,” by James F. Childress (page 192 of the PDF):

Rahul August 11, 2013 at 2:42 pm

That quote from the FT lunch seems a bit vacuous: I don’t see how the semantics of whether the US calls it a “global war on terror” or something else has much substantive to do with the proliferation of violence. The only message perhaps is not to bite any more than you can chew.

Salem August 11, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Well, the point is that words (and other symbols) matter. When leading US politicians call it a “global war on terror,” that message shapes the narrative heard by audiences, both domestic and local. The “biting off more than you can chew” applies to your rhetoric, not just military actions, because they cannot be disentangled.

Or to put it in concrete terms: if the US had said “We are fighting a limited engagement in Afghanistan,” then perhaps there wouldn’t have been the same domestic pressure to engage in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. And if the US hadn’t said “We are fighting a global war,” then perhaps there wouldn’t have been the same proliferation of sympathy for al-Qaeda and subsequent terrorist actions in Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, etc that have necessitated the broadening of US military action.

rpenm August 11, 2013 at 6:26 pm


Rahul August 11, 2013 at 11:52 pm

I still think that’s over-complicating matters. To me the substantive questions are, more simply: Which of Iraq, Yemen, Algeria, Afghanistan deserved our attention and if so what kind? How many resources do we have to spread around and what kind of causalities / costs are we prepared to bear.

Whether we call it a war on terror, or a campaign against Afghan terrorists or an anti-Al Queda project is just the sort of thing editorials and books love to debate upon.

anon August 12, 2013 at 4:10 am

Yes, those are the substantive questions, but substantive questions are only relevant if the proper policies are communicated effectively to the plebes. Semantics don’t matter to me or you, but to the millions of stupid or uninformed people incapable of analyzing things beyond the emotional impressions they get from reading 5 word headlines, semantics matter a lot.

albert magnus August 12, 2013 at 8:50 am

Anyone with a half a brain knew at the time that AQ had broad support in many countries and were not confined to a small geographic area; therefore, if someone said that we are only fighting this particular group of people in this particular place they would of looked like a dummy.

Da August 13, 2013 at 5:25 pm

I don’t think it is implied that the choice of words influences the real effects strongly.
What was meant, I think, was that the choice of words reflects real policies and that those policies influence real effects.

So by analysing the words leaders choose to describe their actions we can deduct the way they see the world and the way they act in this world.

Bliksem August 11, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Simpson’s book is quite interesting, but I fail to see in what sense it provides a radically new way to think about war. (Note how often Michael Howard’s TLS review, despite its extremely positive tone, ends up admitting “all this is common knowledge” or “none of this is new or surprising”.) Simpson’s most interesting contribution is maybe his attempt to capture the rhetorical facets of contemporary wars (cf his recurrent references to Aristotle’s Rhetoric), whereas comparable contemporary books like Kilcullen’s “Accidental guerrilla” tends to adopt anthropological perspectives.

dearieme August 11, 2013 at 4:17 pm

“an oddly neglected historical episode”: nothing odd about it – marxists and their lapdogs disapproved of the outcome.

Steve Sailer August 11, 2013 at 6:50 pm

“If you want stability in the world you have to have clear strategic boundaries that seek to compartmentalise conflicts, and not aggregate them.”

I thought all the cool kids were for Open Borders?

willitts August 11, 2013 at 9:43 pm

The trouble with critiques is that the critic, however knowledgeable and experienced, never has to live with his choices. He can speak in sophistry with few consequences.

Does Simpson suggest we engage in lots of compartments without “calling” it a global war, or does he mean that a strategy that is too overarching fail in the details.

We did a good job of compartmentalizing our campaigns. The problem was one of limiting resources devoted to each fight. When we succeded in one place, the terrorists moved resources or exploited our lack of resources elsewhere. It was indeed global from our enemy’s perspective. They had less to commit because their objectives were smaller and their time horizon longer.

No, if we failed it was because we refused to commit enough resources for long enough and to wage total war. The lesson learned perhaps is one of extremes. If you choose a war, don’t do it half assed. If you’re not going to grind your enemy’s bones to dust, then just stay at home.

We should have routed Muktada al Sadr and then invaded Iran. That’s was the plan all along, but our government and our people lost their nerve. Invading Pakistan wouldn’t have been a bad idea once we knew our enemies were operating there. Otherwise, we could have saved a lot of blood and treasure with strategic airstrikes.

Steve Sailer August 11, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Invite the world, invade the world.

What could possibly go wrong?

Willitts August 12, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Who said anything about invading the world? I suggested invading places that hold our mortal enemies and doing so in a thoughtful and dedicated way instead of a ham-handed, half-hearted way.

I never suggested inviting the world. In fact, I see unbridle emigration as a form of invasion – without any hyperbole.

Our counter-terrorism strategy was well thought out. We just lost our nerve after Iraq fell. The war was never really about WMD.

A full mobilization and invasion of Iran would have settled matters. The people needed to be conquered, not liberated. Our models are Japan and Germany, not Vietnam and Korea. The trouble with being a superpower is that you have to act like one every once in a while.

Myron August 12, 2013 at 7:24 am

When I heard Bush give his “global war on terror” speech, I assumed what he meant that in disputes where anti-government forces started using terror attacks on civilians, the US would side with whatever the government was, in terms of public rhetoric, intelligence sharing, and other forms of assistance. That would mean more of a tilt towards the Israeli side on Palestine (though its hard to see how you can go even further in this direction), but also assistance to Sri Lanka vs the Tamils,support of Russia against the Chechens, cutting oft the money to the Irish terrorists, and so on.

Maybe this all happened behind the scenes, since in some cases such as Sri Lanka governments did get the upper hand against their opponents in these contests.

However what I missed what that this was a justification for the U.S. to start invading countries randomly.

Myron August 12, 2013 at 7:32 am

I’m confused by Howard’s review. From his description of the book, it seems hardly groundbreaking, more of an entry in the “wow, war has gotten really complicated” genre.

Military theorists have been dealing with this subject for several years and even coined a name for these conflicts, “Fourth Generation Warfare”. Howard should know that. And if anything, the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century “bipolar” conflicts were anomalous, usually states were simply not powerful enough to monopolize war.

mkt August 15, 2013 at 2:54 am

Sometimes a work can be groundbreaking simply by taking existing concepts and re-formulating them into a new coherent way of thinking about them. I’m thinking of Boyd’s work on decision cycles/OODA loops: on the one hand there is nothing new there because concepts of initiative, deception, surprise, mobility, intelligence, etc. have been around forever, but he created (arguably; there is still debate about the value of his contributions) a framework which integrated them compactly.

So Simpson may have done something similar, although if so both the review and Tyler’s comments don’t convey what this new way of thinking about strategy entails. Seemingly the book is a string of observations and anecdotes; insightful ones perhaps but yes it seems to only add up to, as you put it, a “wow war has gotten really complicated” book. Howard, and Tyler, seem to think the book accomplishes more than that, but haven’t managed to convey what or how.

Still, I’m intrigued enough to put the book on my “want to read” list.

B.B. August 12, 2013 at 9:52 am

“This kind of situation, where sides argue tooth and nail over the meaning of every point or action, is typical of unstable interpretative environments, and those environments are in turn produced when people are insecure about who they are, and what they are about.”

Forget international politics. That quote describes Washington DC right now. So how do we make politicians more secure about who they are and what they are about?

Willitts August 12, 2013 at 2:49 pm

One argument is that you can’t. A politician’s objectives and decision horizon are often not compatible with military campaigns. War has always been a straw man for the party out of power and an albatross necklace for the party in power.

It remains an open question as to whether democracies are any good at prolonged limited wars with foggy objectives. Our nation has prevailed against insurgencies many times in the past, but in times where voters were more disconnected from military decisions and consequences and war more romanticized.

Television has been a powerful weapon of our enemies. The internet is better.

Da August 13, 2013 at 6:01 pm

“Here is a very positive TLS review of Simpson’s book., where it is described as one of the half dozen essential works on military strategy since World War II.”

I read that whole article just to find out what the other 5 books’ titles are. Can anyone name them for me?

seydlitz89 August 18, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Emile Simpson is a Clausewitzian strategic theorist. He’s not going to replace Clausewitz, but uses Clausewitz’s general theory to better understand specific conflicts in question. In fact he goes beyond that I think with his discussion of strategic narrative being composed of logos, pathos and ethos . . . which can expand on the general theory itself. So quite an accomplishment by this young scholar in his first book! I see why Sir Michael Howard was impressed.

As to 4GW? Let’s be serious, why would any competent strategic theorist bother with such a flawed, reified concept, William Lind’s failed attempt at doctrinal speculation? Simpson never bothers to mention it in his book, why would he?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: