Military history

Chapter 11

The Indirect Approach

A strategist should think in terms of paralyzing, not of killing.

—Basil Liddell Hart

Sir Basil Liddell Hart was also shaped in his thinking by his experiences in the Great War (he had been gassed and wounded at the Somme1) and his determination that future wars should avoid the sort of mindless slaughter he had witnessed. Fuller was the more original and powerful thinker, but not always the most accessible. His friend Liddell Hart had a crisper style, and despite some poor calls in the run-up to the Second World War, his reputation grew after that war. This was partly because he gave unstinting support to a new generation of civilian strategists and military historians, who were able to develop their craft in the comparative security of the universities rather than through continual freelancing like Liddell Hart. In addition, Liddell Hart’s ideas about limited war gained traction as thermonuclear weapons gave new meaning to the idea of total war. He was also a relentless propagandizer on his own behalf, to the point of suggesting that the tragedy of the Second World War was that British generals neglected his ideas on armored warfare, while German generals turned them into the blitzkrieg. After his death in 1970, his history was challenged and his self-promotion rebuked,2 but the central idea of the “indirect approach” continued to gain adherents in business as well as military circles.

Initially Liddell Hart’s work was wholly derivative. Before he sought to claim a remarkable parallel development between Fuller’s ideas and his own, he had pronounced The Reformation of War to be “the book of the century.” He had read T. E. Lawrence’s early presentation of his ideas in The Army Quarterly in 1920 and appears, although this is less easy to document, to have drawn on the work of Julian Corbett as well. Liddell Hart was never challenged by those from whom he had borrowed so liberally. Lawrence kept no records and so was only impressed later by the similarity between his views and those of his good friend, Liddell Hart.3 In 1922 Corbett died. Fuller did not care about the plagiarism, although his wife did. Following Fuller, Liddell Hart adopted the analogy of the brain controlling the body to call for attacks on the enemy’s communications and command centers. His appeal for an “indirect approach” as the “most hopeful and economic form of strategy” struck a chord with those who believed that cleverness was preferable to brute force. Moreover, unlike Fuller, he asserted his own originality by comparing the indirect approach to the more direct, which he claimed to be Clausewitz’s terrible legacy.

Liddell Hart blamed Clausewitz, or at least his followers, for their conviction that everything must be geared to decisive battles with the sole aim of destroying the enemy army through frontal assaults. Everything he hated about the futile mass offensives and horrific bloodshed of the Western Front in the First World War he seemed to blame on Clausewitz, the “evil genius of military thought.” His presentation tended to caricature, as if Clausewitz was gripped by some sort of bloodlust, unable to view war except in absolutist terms, anxious for battle at the first opportunity, and seeking to win through overwhelming numbers rather than proper strategy. He wrote furiously in one of his earliest books about “the Ghost of Napoleon.”4 The approach he deplored was mechanical and a-strategic. Clausewitz’s “gospel deprived strategy of its laurels.”

Eventually Liddell Hart acknowledged that the differences between Clausewitz’s view of war and his own were not large—they both understood that it was an extension of politics and influenced by psychology as much as brute force.5 He could point to the density and philosophical complexity of On War. This made it more likely that Clausewitz would be read as an incitement to early battle at the first opportunity rather than at a more advantageous moment. The view that Clausewitz’s disciples extracted simplistic slogans and applied them crudely was clearly expressed late in his career when Liddell Hart wrote the introduction to Samuel Griffith’s popular translation of The Art of War. Sun Tzu’s “realism and moderation,” he wrote, formed a contrast to “Clausewitz’s tendency to emphasize the logical ideal and ‘absolute’ ” that had led these disciples to develop “the theory and practice of total war beyond all bounds of sense.” Interestingly, Liddell Hart recorded that he was first made aware of Sun Tzu by a contact in China in 1927. “On reading the book I found many other points that coincided with my own lines of thought, especially his constant emphasis on doing the unexpected and pursuing the indirect approach. It helped me to realize the agelessness of the more fundamental military ideas, even of a tactical nature.”6 According to one biographer, there was no direct influence of Sun Tzu when Liddell Hart was developing his approach in the 1920s because he did not actually read the book until the early 1940s.7 This makes his specific mention of 1927 curious, especially since he started to develop his “indirect approach”—so close to Sun Tzu in many clear elements—over the next two years. There was certainly no mention of Sun Tzu in the first version of his constantly refined presentation of his core ideas, The Decisive Wars of History, but the last version, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, included extensive quotes at the front of the book. The Giles translation of Sun Tzu, the one most in use at the time, includes the line: “In all fighting the direct methods may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.” Later translations from the Chinese, however, contrasted the straightforward with the crafty, the normal with the extraordinary, or the orthodox with the unorthodox.

Liddell Hart followed Sun Tzu by prescribing an ideal form of strategy as it should be rather than how it often turned out in practice. Liddell Hart judged Clausewitz’s definition too narrow, too battle-focused, as if this was the only means to the strategic end. Instead, he defined strategy as “the art of distributing and employing military means to fulfill the ends of policy.” The ends of policy were not a military responsibility. They were handed down from the level of grand strategy, where all instruments of policy were weighed, one against each other, and where it was necessary to look beyond the war to the subsequent peace. At the other end of the spectrum, tactics came into play when “the application of the military instrument merges into actual fighting, the dispositions for and control of such direct action.”

In an age of total war, Liddell Hart was seeking limitation, a search that became even more urgent after the invention of nuclear weapons. He was an advocate of limited aims as a means of ensuring limited means, although this urge to proportionality between the two contained an important fallacy: that military means could be geared to the political stakes rather than the strength of the opposition. Large wars could start for small stakes. To this Liddell Hart would reply that if prospective costs were wholly disproportionate to likely gains, the value of the whole enterprise should be questioned.

The art of strategy required not only finding means to achieve a fixed end but also identifying realistic and desirable ends. His method was to define the ideal against which actual performance would be judged. Thus the aim of war was “to subdue the enemy’s will to resist, with the least possible human and economic loss to itself.” Avoiding loss meant avoiding large battles, though the basic principles would apply even if battle had to be joined. The link with Sun Tzu was clear: “The perfection of strategy would be, therefore, to produce a decision without any serious fighting.”

Instead of the direct approach, taking the obvious route into a confrontation with a prepared enemy, the indirect approach would “diminish the possibility of resistance.” The vital impact would be in the psychological rather than the physical sphere. This required calculating the factors affecting the will of the opponent. So while movement might be the key to catching the enemy out physically, surprise was the key to influencing the enemy’s psychology. “Dislocation is the aim of strategy; its sequel may either be the enemy’s dissolution or his easier disruption in battle. Dissolution may involve some partial measure of fighting, but this has not the character of a battle.” It is important to note that although Fuller and Liddell Hart are often seen as intellectual twins, on this they disagreed. Fuller certainly sought the psychological dislocation of the enemy, but he saw no problem in taking the direct route if that would have the desired effect. An indirect approach was “usually a necessary evil,” and “weapon power” would determine which to choose. Where Liddell Hart was dogmatic, Fuller was pragmatic. Liddell Hart wanted to avoid battle; for Fuller, it was the likely source of victory.8

In the physical sphere, avoiding battle required upsetting the enemy’s dispositions by means of a sudden “change of front.” This could be achieved by separating enemy forces, endangering supplies, menacing routes of retreat, or combining several of these moves. In the psychological sphere, dislocation required that these physical effects be impressed on the commander’s mind, creating a “sense of being trapped.” Moving directly against an opponent would not throw him off balance. At most it would impose a strain, but even if successful, the enemy would retreat to his “reserves, supplies, and reinforcements.” The aim was therefore to find “the line of least resistance,” which translated in the psychological sphere into “the line of least expectation.” It was also important to maintain a number of options. Having alternatives kept the enemy guessing, putting him on the “horns of a dilemma,” and allowed for flexibility should the enemy guard against your chosen route. “A plan, like a tree, must have branches—if it is to bear fruit. A plan with a single aim is apt to prove a barren pole.”9

Liddell Hart claimed that his theory developed through a careful examination of the whole of military history. Unfortunately, his approach to history was intuitive and eclectic rather than, as he liked to believe, “scientific.” There were always elements of subtlety, surprise, or innovation in military victories, and indirectness could be “strategic, tactical, psychological and sometimes even ‘unconscious.’ ” As Bond noted, Liddell Hart came extremely close to a circular argument: by his definition, a “decisive victory” was an event which is secured by an “indirect approach.”10 As with Sun Tzu, Liddell Hart’s attraction was that he celebrated the subtle intelligence over brute force. But also like Sun Tzu’s, it raised the questions of how matters would be resolved if both sides were following an indirect approach, the practical problems of coordination, and the impact of chance and friction. Although Liddell Hart later became celebrated as an apostle of maneuver, the campaigns he admired were often attritional, in that they required wearing down the opponent.

The ideal indirect strategy created conditions in which the enemy was forced to conclude that defeat had become inevitable before battle was joined. This strategy relied upon the intelligent maneuver of forces to create a relationship that, once apparent, encouraged the adversary to become more conciliatory. The logic pointed to deterrence. If the likely outcome of battle was known, the best advice would be to avoid the original provocation or—at the other extreme—go for complete, preemptive surprise. Liddell Hart was addressing situations which lacked this clarity and were harder to predict or control, by indirect or direct means. If battle was to be avoided, the role of land war must be limited and sea and air power relied on instead. Blockade from the sea or bombardment from the air might undermine enemy power by damaging the morale and logistical system of the armed forces and perhaps the underlying economic and social structure which sustained the state. Not surprisingly, therefore, Liddell Hart advocated both types of warfare during his career, although his enthusiasm for both naval blockades and air raids waxed and waned. The difficulty was that unless territory was taken the enemy could continue to resist.

Liddell Hart’s advocacy of strategic air power was quite short-lived, although it included a flirtation with crowd psychology when he warned how ordinary people subjected to attack from the air could be “maddened into the impulse to maraud.”11 When it came to following the indirect approach on land, his analysis—following Fuller—focused on the impact of mechanization. Here too he concluded (on the eve of the Second World War) that the potential of a well-organized defense was probably more potent than that of a maneuvering offensive. He hoped that this would reduce the likely aggressor’s readiness and ability to disrupt the status quo. Thus, despite his enthusiasm for the indirect approach, Liddell Hart came up constantly against the very real constraints on its implementation, especially when confronting an opponent of equivalent—let alone greater—raw power and tactical intelligence. An indirect approach represented a strategic ideal but one only likely to be realized in very special circumstances. Societies and their armies could prove to be extremely resilient. Getting in a position to mount sustained pressure in a resolute manner requires effective military dominance—whether at sea, in the air, or on land. This in turn was likely to require very direct and decisive contact with enemy forces. This led Liddell Hart to eventually conclude that very little useful purpose could be served by war.

Churchill’s Strategy

The maneuver which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins a great battle. The maneuver which gains an important strategic point may be less valuable than that which placates or overawes a dangerous neutral.

—Winston Churchill, The World Crisis

We shall discuss later the reality behind the blitzkrieg story. There is no doubt that the Wehrmacht’s mastery of armored warfare gained Germany some great victories in the early stages of the Second World War that led to virtual domination of Europe. But the domination was never complete and in the end Germany lost. It was settled by the logic of alliance as much as military prowess. Germany was consistently superior in the field but in the end could not cope with the combined weight of the United States, the Soviet Union, and the British Empire. That this would be the eventual outcome was hardly apparent in the spring of 1940, when only one of the “big three” was actually at war, and its situation appeared to be parlous. On May 10, 1940, the German army began an offensive that in ten days saw it move through Belgium and Holland to the French coast. Soon France fell and Britain was alone. Yet Britain continued to fight when its position appeared hopeless and eschewed the possibility of a deal with Hitler that might have left it a diminished but still independent power.

Richard Betts has used this example to query the role of strategy. The British government’s decision to continue to fight was one of the most “epochal” decisions of the last century, yet at the time it made little strategic sense.12 For it to make sense, Betts argued, Churchill would have had to know in advance and with confidence that the Germans would be unable to cross the English Channel, lose the Battle of Britain, and eventually lose the Battle of the Atlantic. Most importantly, Churchill would have had to assume that by the end of 1941 Britain would be fighting alongside the Soviet Union and the United States.

This is, however, the wrong way to look at the decision in terms of strategy. A better approach was that adopted by Ian Kershaw in his analysis of the decision-making among the great powers during the Second World War. He did not pose the question of strategy in terms of how to best meet ultimate objectives but how the available options come to be defined and what considerations influenced the choices. His starting point was where political leaders found themselves rather than where they wished to be.13

As Germany advanced toward France, and Britain’s close ally teetered, Winston Churchill became prime minister. His first days in office were taken up with whether France could stay in the war and what might be done if she could not. His own reputation as a war leader had yet to be made: he was still viewed with suspicion for a career marred by regular lapses of judgment. Now he had to address the arguments of his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, that there was no point in accepting unnecessary suffering if a compromise deal with Hitler could be found that would preserve Britain’s independence and integrity. There appeared to be an option using Italy, who had yet to join the war, as a mediator. Churchill convinced his colleagues that this was not worth pursuing.

The choice they faced was not about alternative means of winning but about how best to avoid defeat and humiliating terms. It was not about refusing to negotiate under any circumstances but whether there was anything to be gained by trying to negotiate when circumstances were so dire. The option of a negotiated outcome was not rejected because of Churchill’s pugnacity but because the arguments in favor of it were unpersuasive. It depended on Benito Mussolini, who was becoming an increasingly unlikely mediator because of his pro-German stance and lack of influence over Hitler. On examination, possible peace terms appeared to be unacceptable. In an effort to appear reasonable during taxing cabinet discussions, Churchill professed himself willing to consider concessions in areas of British influence or the transfer of a few spare colonies to “get out of the mess,” but demands which went to the heart of the country’s constitutional independence, involving a different sort of government and enforced disarmament, would be intolerable.14 Available terms might be better than those following military defeat, but this was not self-evidently the case. It was possible that matters would get even worse and Britain would be subjugated. But it was also possible that this would not happen. Any deal would be better for Britain if the Germans assumed they were dealing with an opponent that had some fight left. In addition, the very act of exploring a settlement would be viewed abroad as weakness and cause demoralization at home. For the moment, the country was not beaten and the armed forces felt that they could organize strong resistance to a German invasion. These discussions took place before the “miracle” of Dunkirk. The initial expectation had been that, at best, tens of thousands would escape to Britain from defeated France. When a third of a million troops were rescued from the beaches where they were suffering relentless air attacks, this provided an early vindication of the decision to fight on.

Churchill could have no idea at the time about the likely course of the war. According to Eliot Cohen, Churchill did not think of strategy as a blueprint for victory. He knew that the course of a war could not be predicted and that steps to victory might not be discerned until they were about to be taken. He distrusted “cut and dried calculations” on how wars would be won. For him, strategy was very much an art and not a science—indeed so art-like as to be close to painting. “There must be that all-embracing view which presents the beginning and the end, the whole and each part, as one instantaneous impression retentively and untiringly held in the mind.” With a few key themes always at the fore and a grasp of context, there was a framework for taking in new developments exploiting new opportunities. This was not, as Cohen notes, a machine built “to narrow tolerances and an exact design,” nor was it “a chaotic welter of unconnected and opportunistic decisions.”15

While Churchill’s approach to purely military affairs could be impetuous, he had a natural grasp of coalition warfare. Coalitions were always going to be central to British strategy. The empire contributed significantly to the war effort in terms of men and materiel, and its special needs had to be accommodated. The United States had the unequivocal potential to tip the scales when a European confrontation reached a delicate stage. Almost immediately after taking office, Churchill saw that the only way to a satisfactory conclusion of the war was “to drag the United States in,” and this was thereafter at the center of his strategy. His predecessor Neville Chamberlain had not attempted to develop any rapport with President Franklin Roosevelt. Churchill began at once what turned into a regular and intense correspondence with Roosevelt, although so long as Britain’s position looked so parlous and American opinion remained so anti-war, little could be expected from Washington. His first letter was if anything desperate, warning of the consequences for American security of a British defeat. If Britain could hang on, something might turn American opinion. Churchill was even prepared to believe that this might happen if the country was invaded.16

At the time, Hitler’s choices appeared more palatable and easier. German victories had confirmed his reputation as a military genius with unquestioned authority. Yet he recognized the difficulty of following the defeat of France with an invasion of Britain. A cross-channel invasion would be complicated and risky. There were also other options for getting Britain out of the war. The first was to push it out of the Mediterranean, further affecting its prestige and influence and interfering with its source of oil. Whether or not this would have had the desired effects, Hitler was wary of his regional partners—Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and Vichy France. They all disagreed with each other, and none could be considered reliable. Mussolini, for example, used German victories to move a reluctant country into war. He then demonstrated his independence from Hitler by launching a foolhardy invasion of Greece. This left him weakened and Hitler furious. Germany had to rescue the Italian position in Greece and then North Africa, leading to a major diversion of attention and resources from Hitler’s main project, the invasion of the Soviet Union.

He considered a war with the Soviet Union to be not only inevitable but also the culmination of his ambitions, allowing him to establish German dominion over continental Europe and deal once and for all with the twin— and, in his eyes, closely related—threats of the Jews and Communism. If he was going to go to war with Russia anyway, it was best to do so while the country was still weak following Josef Stalin’s mass purges of the army and communist party in the 1930s.17 A quick defeat of Russia would achieve Hitler’s essential objective and leave Britain truly isolated. But Hitler also had a view about how the war was likely to develop. Britain, he assumed, only resisted out of a hope that the Russians would join the war. Of course, without a quick win, Hitler faced the dreaded prospect of a war on two fronts—something good strategists were supposed to avoid—as well as increasing strain on national resources. He needed to conquer the Soviet Union to sustain the war and to gain access to food supplies and oil. With the Soviet Union defeated, he reasoned, Britain would realize that the game was up and seek terms. If Hitler had accepted that the Soviet Union could not be defeated, his only course would have been to seek a limited peace with Britain that would have matched neither the scale of his prior military achievements nor his pending political ambition.

Another reason for acting quickly was that the Americans were likely to come into the war eventually, but not—he assumed—until 1942 at the earliest. Getting Russia out of the way quickly would limit the possibility of a grand coalition building up against him. In this Stalin helped. The Soviet leader refused to listen to all those who tried to warn him about Hitler’s plans. He assumed that the German leader would stick to the script that Stalin had worked out for him, providing clues of the imminence of attack. Churchill’s warnings were dismissed as self-serving propaganda, intended to provoke war between the two European giants to help relieve the pressure on Britain. Unlike Tsar Alexander in 1812, Stalin compounded the problem by having his armies deployed on the border, making it easier for the German army to plot a course that would cut them off before they could properly engage. The result was a military disaster from which the Soviet Union barely escaped. Yet a combination of the famous and fierce Russian winter and some critical German misjudgments about when and where to advance let Stalin recover from the early blow. Once defeat was avoided, industrial strength slowly but surely revived and the vast size of the Russian territory was too much for the invaders. The virtuoso performances of German commanders could put off defeat, but they could not overcome the formidable limits imposed by a flawed grand strategy.

Germany’s first blow against the Soviet Union depended on surprise (as did Japan’s against the United States), but it was not a knockout. The initial advantage did not guarantee a long-term victory. The stunning German victories of the spring 1940 and the bombing of British cities that began in the autumn approximated the possibilities imagined by Fuller, Liddell Hart, and the airpower theorists, but they were not decisive. They moved the war from one stage to another, and the next stage was more vicious and protracted. The tank battles became large scale and attritional, culminating in the 1943 Battle of Kursk. Populations did not crumble under air attacks but endured terrific devastation, culminating in the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the war’s shocking finale. Our discussion of American military thought in the 1970s and 1980s will demonstrate the United States’ high regard for the German operational art and recall that this was not good enough to win the war.

When it came to victory, what mattered most was how coalitions were formed, came together, and were disrupted. This gave meaning to battles. The Axis was weak because Italy’s military performance was lackluster, Spain stayed neutral, and Japan fought its own war and tried to avoid conflict with the Soviet Union. Britain’s moment of greatest peril came when France was lost as an ally, but started to be eased when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Churchill’s hopes rested on the United States, sympathetic to the British cause but not in a belligerent mood. It was eighteen months before America was in the war. As soon as America entered the fray, Churchill rejoiced. “So we had won after all! . . . How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end, no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care . . . We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end.”18

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