Renken on Ganske on Wylie

Rich Ganske asked me to blog about his presentation on J.C. Wylie to the Boyd and Beyond group. Thank you Rich; I am humbled by the request. I am likely to imperfectly recollect the full content, but believe I can capture several nuggets worth further development. First some caveats. 

  1. I am not attempting to present an alternative critique of Wylie and
  2. the Socratic nature of the setting meant that there were several points where it became hard to know if Ganske was giving his position or riffing off of the crowd’s response.

To that end, I include any comments that came up during his moderated presentation as useful fodder.

Rich Ganske presenting on J.C. Wylie’s “Theory of Control”

Rich Ganske presenting on J.C. Wylie’s “Theory of Control”

The stated objective of the presentation was

[F]irst this will be a narrow look at Wylie’s Theory of Control. Particularly, we will look at his ideas of those that allow us to look at a general theory of strategy, and his assumptions that enable his theory of control. Next, I want to deliberately align Wylie’s Theory of Control within Clausewitz’s essential unity. Finally, I want to focus upon control narrowly, as it is indispensible for the application of strategic effect in each and every domain.

The discussion opened with Wylie’s maxims on war, which I herein summarize as:

  1. There may be war, despite all efforts to prevent it.
  2. Thru war, strategists strive to achieve assert a desired degree of control.
  3. No nation can predict with certainty the pattern of war for which to prepare.
  4. The ultimate determinate in war is the “man on the scene with the gun."[1]


By way of serving the first objective and locating Wylie as either in or out of harmony with Clausewitz, Rich asserts some interesting ideas. The first point from him is “I really struggled with Wylie’s criticism of Clausewitz, particularly when he suggests that a general theory of warfare does not yet exist.” To that end it is worth thinking hard about what exactly Clausewitz did accomplish and back our way into exactly what Wylie’s criticism may have been. In this effort remember three things (especially in light of the critics Ganske cited—Echevarria and Yarger—who are, with all due respect, presidents of the Carlisle CVC fan club); 1) Wylie’s essay was limited to one book in 94 pages and CVC’s was posthumously compiled from work almost ten times as long. 2) CVC’S writing was, frankly, not dripping with clarity and several of his tangential forays into areas like sea power and small wars have equipped Echevarria in particular to ascribe CVC an omnibus quality that I do not think he deserves. 3) CVC comes up short on describing the how a strategist may find himself at war and, more importantly, how he may extricate himself to peace. I believe the vogue term for the latter is “theory of victory.” CVC talks little about what is this whole war thing is about, and is pretty silent on what the subsequent peace must be about.

Was Wylie off base saying Clausewitz failed to offer, among all others, a “theory of warfare?”

I think Wylie had a point. CVC had delivered a groundbreaking dialogue on war, and some general considerations therein, but it is hard to define where CVC’s war begins and where it ends. It is therefore a theory in warfare, but not perhaps a complete theory of war. Jomini would notably add to Clausewitz that that there were essentially nine kinds of war, and that at least half of them served deeply secreted and irrational factors at the outset like wounded pride, religious zeal, need for conquest, or “wars of opinion” (ideology).[2] This is as interesting as the idea of war extending the performance of politics to other areas, but it does little to usefully bookend the phenomenon. Simply ascribing that CVC (and perhaps Jomini) were implicitly stating that the theory of victory “is” a resolution of the politics is probably wrong and unnecessary. CVC’s opus needs no defenders. Wylie has struck upon an undeveloped idea set—that the politician and general are attempting to assert control. Control, once achieved—even without defeat of an army or capture of a city—sets conditions for peace. If the boundary of CVC’S theory is insufficient, then Wylie is right. To his credit, he does not attempt, in 94 pages, to offer a full substitute.

At this point, I will second Ganske’s rejection of Wylie “that [Clausewitz’s] observations based on [his] foundation of reasoning do not have much of a substantive transfer value from his time to ours.” **Beware those who claim we live in exceptional times.** (I’m looking at you, ASB/RMA crowd.)

A weak point in Ganske’s argument was the discussion of sequential versus cumulative strategies. While attempting to graft this concept into a Ch 3, Book 8 of On War to show how Wylie simply missed CVC’s accomplishment, I hardly think CVC leaves the latitude for that re-appropriation. The quoted CVC passage is clearly talking about total and limited war. Wylie is talking about sequential island hopping versus cumulative submarine counter-logistics. There is a difference in kind because island hopping could itself be total or limited—likewise submarine warfare could be total or limited. Therefore, total is not cumulative, and limited is not sequential.

Wylie’s point in cumulative versus sequential was to get at something much more interesting. I believe he was specifically rejecting much of CVC’s Newtonian reductionism that has gained strength in the 20th century under Lenchester and the proto-RANDs of the 1940’s and 50’s. He was stating something about the art of war that really was seminal. Sequential strategies have obvious effects and benchmarks; the latter had obvious goals, but measures of success and effect were far more obscured.

Sequential strategies fit the neat arithmetic and linear thinking preferred by many Western war planners. An action produces a predictable effect, which is enhanced by additional sequential actions, and bit-by-bit observable progress is ploddingly made towards a well-defined objective. A cumulative strategy is “less perceptible...little items piling one on top of the other until at some point the mass of accumulated actions may be large enough to be critical.”[3] Victory can break out quite unexpectedly, and the adversary may persist for considerable time not knowing that he is dead at the switch.

This contribution was distinct. CVC’s simple construction of schwerpunkt,even taken to logical extensions beyond capital cities and armies, really still relied on the pursuit of decisive, almost scientific, victories. Wylie denies CVC that. I am not positive that a Continentalist is as equipped as a Sailor to come up with this idea. ATM, Corbett, and Douhet were all more comfortable viewing their adversaries as systems, subject to system failures. System failures can be hard to predict.

War as an extension of policy or a failure of policy?

Ganske stated that Wylie claimed war is not the extension of policy, but rather the failure of policy, and that undermines his second maxim. I offer a different interpretation. Like CVC, Wylie was uniquely equipped with diplomatic postings that familiarized him with the policy world. He was also living in a word that had taken a new level of complexity with the post-Napoleonic collapse of monarchy and the upheaval of the industrial revolution. He was witness to the failed policy of Nazism, the profane policies of Leninism, and multiple emerging policies like MAD with its oversubscription to game theory. That many of these things can be called “policy,” and that some of these led to war gives me reason to accept that such a broad word a “policy” may become the subject of some hostile editorialization by a WWII vet.

The fact that Wylie makes control the pursuit of the second maxim resolves this for me…with a twist. On the upside, I think it re-confirms that “policy” as an expression of political will, is indeed the purpose of the strategist. On the downside, the fact that Wylie simply refers to the ”strategist” creates two new problems. Does Wylie accept or reject that “strategy” is a military problem or that of a policy maker? Does Wylie subsume the military strategist to the political strategist? This is unanswered, and frankly unnecessary (but interesting) to answer that Wylie does not disconnect strategy from political will, implemented as policy.

Does Wylie misunderstand the “Remarkable Trinity?”

Throughout this portion of the discussion, I had difficulty with Ganske’s use of “objective” and “subjective.” Those are definitional terms and are a challenge to coopt into a specific schema of use absent redefinition. Also, since we all kept on misquoting the trinity from Violence/Reason/Chance to bastard derivations like People/Government/Military, People/Insurgent/Guerillas, I am not sure that we understand the remarkable trinity. Thanks Nate for the help here.

Aligning Wylie and Clausewitz

Here is where the most interesting conversation of the day came up. Ganske attempted to show how “control” was something the strategist strives to impose in a variable phase of Lonsdale’s (The Nature of War in the Information Age) “Constant-Variable-Constant” model.

The problem I had, and much of the room had, was in seeing Wylie’s contribution as simply an input to strategy, rather than the goal of strategy. I don’t think it is necessary to take on CVC or Lonsdale here. I think Wylie would not let his concept of control be parked as an input variable, but rather insist that it is nothing if not a desired output. All of my inputs as a strategist are an attempt to produce control.

What is Control?

Here is also where the very concept of “control” became a hot topic. Does control mean killing, or does control require the acquiescence of the “defeated” (but living) group who will perpetuate the affirmation of control? Is acceptance of defeat itself a “control strategy?” If so, what is the “theory of victory” that corresponds to it (I don’t think there is one, but I don’t think all strategies need a theory of victory—some don’t aim to be victorious)? Can you place a Fabian strategy as a control strategy that is not attempting victory?

I think much of Ganske’s prepared remarks touched on this (I have the benefit of his file), but it was pretty fun watching the crowd spin and riff off of different angles. The best development of was the recognition that annihilative control is perverse in most situations since control is an intentional phenomenon: it is “about” something. I control something to accomplish something. I seek better control of the Chinese to ensure FON in the SCS. Therefore, with the exception of the Nazi’s control crisis, which was about European Jewry, usually control is specifically established with a cowed, defeated adversary. For myself I think that power and control are reflections in a mirror. Power is real if my adversary believes I have it; control is real if I believe I have been given it by my adversary. In no case however does this speak of control as an intermediary variable: it is pure product.

Closing thought

Ganske’s breadth of material was impressive, but he stumbled when he tried to locate Wylie essentially “within” Clausewitz rather than recognizing that he needed to locate him on the edge of Clausewitz. CVC defines what’s in the “box” of war very well, but Wylie does something truly great by defining the boundaries of the box. When your control crisis reaches a certain point, you go to war. When the control achieved is sufficient, you attempt to end war. In between those two points, with the exception of offering clarifying cumulative versus sequential pathologies, CVC still reigns supreme. It is perhaps fitting that a Sailor defines the fringe while a Continentalist fills in the content.

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[1] Wylie, Military Strategy, USNI, 1989, pp. 66, 70, 72.

[2] Antoin-Henry Jomini, The Art of War, trans. U.S. Military Academy 1862 (Kindle Edition), 12- 24.

[3] Wylie, 25.