Strategy, Civil–Military Relations, and the Political Nature of War: #Reviewing Scales on War

Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk. Robert Scales. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.

A book that takes its title from the most famous treatise on warfare in the Western world should reasonably be expected to have something substantial to say about the forest rather than the trees.

For a much shorter version of what follows, one need look no further than a recent tweet by Tom Ricks and response by Jill Sargent Russell. “If light infantry is so vulnerable on the battlefield,” Ricks wondered, “why is [it] that we are unable to decisively defeat adversaries who only have that?” Russell, quoting Ricks, replied, “Because war is political, not tactical.”[1]

Ricks’ query aptly encapsulates the thrust of retired Maj. Gen. Bob Scales’ latest and last book, Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk. Russell’s reply, of course, sums up the original On War, and similarly provides much deeper insight into the challenges facing the U.S. military today.

Scales on War might better have been titled Scales on Tactics, or perhaps Scales on Soldiering. As a catalogue of how the United States fights its wars and how it might fight them better, it rings largely true. However, Scales took his title from the king of the Western strategic canon and, as Emerson said, “when you strike at a king, you must kill him.” When you appropriate the most famous title in strategic literature, you invite comparison—and Scales shows himself to be strong in the details of tactics but weak in the synthesis that is the heart of strategy.

What’s missing? In the first place, the book too frequently breaks the first rule of persuasive writing, which is to avoid giving the reader cause to labor over the mechanics, structure, or meaning of the text. Scales on War is a collection of discrete arguments more than a single narrative (many chapters are drawn from previously published articles and op-eds), and that inherently choppy structure is not helped by mechanical errors ranging from incomplete lists to tangled syntax. Nathaniel Hawthorne is supposed to have said that “easy reading is damn hard writing;” too much of Scales on War is damn hard reading, for which the writing pays a steep price in the reader’s patience and attention.

Scales on War would hardly be the first book with such a title to require a reader willing to put in some work, but the real question is whether the ideas therein have merit independent of the book’s mechanics. As independent vignettes—in many cases, in their original form as articles and op-eds—the individual chapters are generally compelling. Presented in compendium as a book, however, the contents do not transcend the characteristic drawback of the persuasive genre: however accurately it identifies what is wrong and what should be done, the form typically gives short shrift to how proposed solutions might be realized.

To be sure, the current practice of the American way of war offers no shortage of problems to point out, and this Scales does with urgency, earnestness, and not infrequently a sense of tragedy. The opening chapter, “Two Unnecessary Heroes,” neatly frames Scales’ approach. Starting with a soldier’s-eye-view of war, he paints a stirring portrait of individual acts of real-life bravery, but then introduces the seductively bold claim that those acts of bravery were only necessitated by the soldiers’ being caught in a “fair” fight—i.e., without the latest squad-level intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance tools that could have alerted them to impending danger. The United States, Scales says, is too rich and powerful a country to allow its soldiers ever to be caught in such a fair fight, and “the experiences of [the ‘unnecessary heroes’] should remind lawmakers of their unpaid debt to those who do the dirty business of intimate killing.”[2]

As rhetoric, this is effective stuff. The combination of the ethical appeal of Scales’ rank and reputation with the pathetic appeal of an “unpaid debt” incurred by the suffering of “unnecessary heroes” is compelling. It is all the more compelling for how well it comports with common post-9/11 tropes: heroic troops, miserly and misguided lawmakers, the implicit sense that victory is just a few strategic kills away—and that if only the most powerful country on earth (with the greatest military in history) could focus its attention and resources on the right troops, tools, and tactics, it could permanently dominate its adversaries.

Appealing though that argument might be, it defies logical and political sense. First, in spite of the sweep of his title, Scales’ perspective on war is quite narrow: the book’s main thesis boils down to the idea that, contra the latest fad in Beltway war-forecasting (which Scales eviscerates effectively and with palpable gusto), wars will continue to be determined by the infantry: “those who do the dirty business of intimate killing.”

Maybe so. (With Scales, I would argue probably if not certainly so.) But, as Scales himself admits, “For more than two-thirds of a century, [the United States] has preferred to crush its enemies by exploiting its superiority in the air and on the seas. … Every enemy has ceded us those domains [and] challenge[d] us instead where we are weak: small units on ground unfamiliar to us but familiar to them.”[3] Logically, we have to wonder if better technology at the squad level could really overcome this weakness: targeted killings—the ultimate unfair fight—have brought air dominance to the tactical level without achieving strategic ends.

Politically, the implication—by a general officer, no less—that Americans and particularly their politicians owe something to the troops, no matter how heroic, is frankly inappropriate. Even if we grant that law- and policy-makers have a fiduciary duty to steward troops’ lives, and even if we grant that our politicians have by and large abrogated this responsibility in recent decades, in no case do soldiers’ suffering and death impose an “unpaid debt” on politicians. The moral obligation to steward the nation’s resources—including and especially the lives of its troops—is one thing, but to imply, as Scales does, a political debt owed by statesmen to soldiers is to directly contravene the nature of the civil-military relationship in a democracy.

Where Scales on War ultimately fails, though, is in its failure to demonstrate a grasp of what is probably the most famous dictum of all in its namesake—“namely that war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.”[4] However compelling it might be as an appreciation of the infantry or catalog of failures in the resourcing and employment of the infantry, Scales on War is virtually silent as to the domestic political feasibility of its proposed fixes and, more importantly, to the strategic feasibility of those fixes to achieve desired political outcomes.

So long as war’s nature remains unchanging, Scales may well be correct in maintaining, as J. C. Wylie did before him, that “[t]he ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with a gun.”[5] Crucially, however, it will also remain a contest of political will—and, as the United States continues not to learn, tactical superiority does not automatically translate into political victory.

Scales on War, by contrast, is like a field guide to trees: full of interesting detail on the parts but with little to say about the entire ecosystem.

To read Clausewitz on war is akin to reading John Muir on forests: each understood the particulars of his subject uncommonly well, but gained immortality for his insight into the nature and function of the whole. Scales on War, by contrast, is like a field guide to trees: full of interesting detail on the parts but with little to say about the entire ecosystem. Even if carried out to the letter, the suggestions in Scales on War might improve our tactics, but they would likely move us no closer to Ricks’ decisive—which is to say political—outcomes.

Colin Steele is a 2018 master’s candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

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Header Image: Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, pull security during a training exercise, Feb. 19, 2013, at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. (U.S. Army Photo/Sgt. Eric M. Garland)


[1] This exchange was approvingly quoted in the “Interpreter” newsletter from the New York Times (8 September 2017): “imagine our delight to see the entirety of human knowledge on warfare distilled into one pithy tweet, posted by the military historian Jill S. Russell in response to a question by the journalist Tom Ricks.” I couldn’t agree more with either Jill’s tweet or the Times’ endorsement, but clearly have no intention of being nearly so pithy.

[2] Bob Scales, Scales on War: The Future of America’s Military at Risk (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2016), 5.

[3] Scales on War, 4.

[4] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008 [reprint]), 69.

[5] J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1967), 85.