History's Last Left Hook?

Military Envelopments with Strategic Implications

“Left hook” is a boxing term for a short, sideways, inside punch which often lands on an opponent’s jaw. Left hooks generally come as a surprise because for most people it is much harder to punch with their left arm. So, while boxers may continuously jab, cross, and uppercut, the perfectly placed “left hook” can mean all the difference in a match, and its effects can be devastating. For orthodox or in-fighters the left hook is closer to land on your opponent, and for experienced boxers, the “left hook” is no random move. Successful boxers study their opponent, their moves and patterns; through deliberate and practiced blows they know when and how to throw the perfectly timed “left hook.” 

Much like the football team that continuously runs the ball up the middle and passes only on occasion, the perfectly timed hook can surprise the most seasoned opponent and keep them off guard. Outside the ring, the term “left hook” has become a metaphor for a shocking and evasive move against an opponent.

Are the principles of the 'left hook' timeless?

One of history’s first large scale “left hooks” took place during the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. The fundamental principles of that ancient conflict can be seen in World Wars I and II, and even Desert Storm: all these “left hooks” share the common principles of surprise, shock, timing, overwhelming force, precision, and deception; they are military envelopments with strategic implications.

Hannibal Barca

Hannibal’s actions at the Battle of Cannae during the 2nd Punic War in 216 B.C. created the gospel of strategic envelopment. Hannibal’s successes were catastrophic for the Romans, and the repercussions of his actions were felt for centuries. Before the battle, Hannibal had concluded a multi-year journey from Carthage (in northern Africa) through modern-day Spain, southern France, and into the Apennine peninsula from the north. Hannibal had led 50,000 foot soldiers, 9,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants across the Pyrennees and the Alps. The movement of his entire army was itself a continental envelopment.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Following the massive invasion of the peninsula and successful battles in the northern cities of Trebia and Lake Trasimene, Hannibal met the Roman legions at Cannae. Instead of meeting the legions in a head-on assault, he bypassed the Roman columns and encircled them, catching the entire legion by surprise. Hannibal’s actions at Cannae had the strategic effect of destroying the Roman Army, shattering their morale, and convincing many of their allies to switch sides.

The actions of Hannibal at Cannae were later canonized by a 19th century German military officer, Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen.

Despite Hannibal’s overwhelming success at the Battle of Cannae, and the terror he brought upon the Roman Empire, his victory was relatively short-lived. Hannibal had destroyed the Roman legions, but later became mired down when the Romans put up a strong, and indirect, civil resistance front. Within fifteen years, Hannibal was forced out of Roman territory and back to Carthage.

The Schlieffen Plan

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the German military maximized their effectiveness and efficiency through enabling mass mobilization, military planning, and wielding strategic alliances. Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen was one of the most prominent officers on the German General Staff. Schlieffen had become an expert in the Battle of Cannae, and actually wrote a book on it, becoming one of the world’s most knowledgeable historians on the topic. 

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to World War I, the German General Staff had developed war plans and a preemptive strategy to counter a possible Franco-Russian alliance. The Schlieffen Plan, credited to Alfred von Schlieffen himself, was actually a series of plans designed for the Germans to take the offensive and trap the neighboring French in a massive single envelopment through the Low Countries of Belgium and the Netherlands, and into northern France. The plan was phased to parry ground on the flank’s left wing in Alsace-Lorraine in order to ensure the French armies were occupied until a powerful right wing could complete the envelopment.[1] 

During World War I, the German military’s maximization of the effectiveness of arms, foresight, economic power, and mass mobilization resulted in many battlefield successes, but they were never able to completely outmaneuver the British or the French, and instead became encapsulated in trench warfare. During the 1930’s, French military officers built a static defense at the Maginot line in order to force a potential German invasion through the north. The French believed a static defense at the Maginot line would give them enough time to mobilize their reserves and force expansionist Germans to confront their armies in Belgium. 

The Germans, however, were ambitious and crafty. German General Heinz Guderian completely bypassed the Maginot line through the Ardennes, a dense and rocky forested region the French perceived to be impenetrable. During World War II, German forces conquered France in six weeks. German control of France lasted less than five years, and throughout the occupation, much like Hannibal’s Army, the Third Reich faced massive civil resistance. 

The Schlieffen Plan has been studied by military officers for decades. One of those military officers is Air Force Colonel John Boyd who, according to Robert Coram, was instrumental in planning the strategy behind 1991’s Operation Desert Storm. 

John Boyd and Brent Scowcroft

It has been 25 years since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Often referred to as “the first CNN war,” Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm showcased the U.S. military’s ability to extend its global reach and employ overwhelming firepower to neutralize an enemy’s centers of gravity. Desert Shield and Desert Storm were also the first major U.S.-led coalition operations in the “post-Cold War” era. The U.S.-led coalition campaign was designed to first build up forces in the Gulf (Desert Shield) and then drive Saddam’s forces from neighboring Kuwait (Desert Storm).

In the lead up to Desert Storm, the term “left hook” was used by the National Security Council (NSC) to describe their plans for a massive military envelopment. Desert Storm’s “left hook” was both literal and metaphorical. From an operational perspective, the U.S. and coalition forces’ rally through Iraq’s western desert provinces was unexpected. Saddam’s military was prepared to fight “force on force” in northern Kuwait where U.S. Marines feinted an amphibious assault on the coast. In bypassing the Iraqi Army via a large, overwhelming envelopment up through Saudi Arabia and into Iraq’s western desert, the operational move was both a “left hook” in the literal sense, but also a metaphorical “left hook” in that it was an evasive and perfectly-timed plot. 

Desert Storm’s “left hook.” Image Courtesy: U.S. Army 

Its been said that success has many fathers. Who was actually responsible for Desert Storm’s “left hook”? Initially, CENTCOM commander General Norman Schwartzkopf proposed a “massive head-on attack” to confront Iraqi forces [2]. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by General Colin Powell, were criticized as having developed the football equivalent of a “hi diddle-diddle, up the middle” strategy [3]. Historian Bartholomew Sparrow explains that the National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft persuaded President Bush to reject the Joint Chiefs’ initial combat plans, which he thought were “unimaginative” and “made a direct assault on Iraqi forces” [4]. In the meantime, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney consulted one of his favorite military strategists, retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd. During the run up to Desert Storm, Cheney regularly met with Boyd, where Boyd developed “a version of the von Schlieffen plan” [5]. Boyd was intimately familiar with the Battle of Cannae, the Schlieffen plan, as well as the concept of strategic envelopment; he used his vast knowledge of history to inform his strategic advice to the DOD. On the ground, then-Lieutenant General Frederick Franks, commander of the U.S. Army’s VII Corps, was responsible for implementing the deceptive and high-tempo strategy, which quickly disoriented fourteen battle-hardened Iraqi military divisions and forced them into retreat. 

Could Desert Storm actually be history’s last strategic envelopment?

After the U.S. and coalition forces met their goal of forcing the Iraqis out of Kuwait, the NSC ended the war. While the U.S. met its stated objectives during the campaign, the decision to end the war did not come without criticism. Some scholars and pundits have argued that the U.S. should have forced Saddam to relinquish control of the country. Saddam remained in control of Iraq for twelve more years, until he was forced out after a massive U.S.-led coalition invasion in 2003. Later, not unlike the armies of ancient Carthage and the Third Reich, the U.S.-led coalition was attacked by an unwieldy insurgency and the forces of civil insurrection. 

The Future’s “Left Hook”

What is the future of the proverbial “left hook”? With the 21st century’s advanced technology, social media, and rapid global communication, it may be impossible to conduct a massive ground-based strategic envelopment on the order of a Desert Storm. Could Desert Storm actually be history’s last strategic envelopment? Or, do the principles of war endure forever? How will future military strategists and tacticians employ the principles of the “left hook” in future battles? History suggests the principles behind the “left hook” will continue — the elements of surprise, overwhelming force, precision, timing, and deception, but how it will be employed is a question for tomorrow’s strategists. 

Dr. Diane Maye is a member of the Military Writers Guild and frequently writes about U.S. foreign policy, Iraqi politics, and grand strategy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

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[1]. Rothenberg, Gunther E. “Moltke and Schlieffen, and the Doctrine of Strategic Envelopment,” in Makers of Modern Strategy, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 284, 296–325. 

[2]. Coram, Robert. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Back Bay Books, 2002), p. 423.

[3]. Sparrow, Bartholomew. The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), p. 393.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Coram, p. 423.