Category Archives: One Ring to Rule Them All

The Western Strategic Tradition

Whence Springs a Strategic Canon?

T. Greer asked for comments on how the Western strategic canon aligns with the Chinese strategic canon. Here are a few:

The Western (Latin Christian) strategic tradition up to c. 1500 springs from three major sources:

  1. The Vulgate by Jerome: Most military historians pay little attention to the Old Testament as a source of Western military thought. They think of the Old Testament as a book instead of what it really is: a library (from Koine Greek τὰ βιβλία, tà biblía, “the books”) containing the core works of the Israelite nation. A medieval warlord could summon his court prelate and have suggestive examples of strategytechnology embargoes, asymmetrical warfare, fortification, and other topics related to war read and translated to him to supplement his knowledge of warcraft. Through Jerome’s Latin translation, he had access to a canon predating China’s strategic canon by up to 500 years. When Mesopotamian and Egyptian influence is included, it goes back even further. Here’s a good example.
  2. De re militari by Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus: A kluge of many better but often lost Greek and Latin works inexpertly pieced together by a concerned citizen of the Roman Empire within 20 years (either way) of the Gothi sack of Rome in AD 410. This kluge became Latin Christendom’s go to strategic treatise for the next millennium. Wikipedia muses:

    …it was “one of the most popular Latin technical works from Antiquity, rivaling the elder Pliny’s Natural History in the number of surviving copies dating from before AD 1300″. The early English historian Bede (672/673 – 735) cites Vegetius in his prose Life of St Cuthbert. The earliest extant manuscript from England to contain Vegetius’ text is Cotton Cleopatra D.I (of the 11th, possibly late 10th century). De Re Militari came to the forefront in the late Carolingian period through Hrabanus Maurus (d. 856), who used the text for his own manual De Procincta Romaniae Militiae, composed for Lothair II of Lotharingia (r. 855-869).

    The Roman Empire at Constantinople had higher quality military manuals than De re military such as the Strategikon attributed to Mauricius and the Taktika of Leo VI but they didn’t reach Latin Christendom until the Roman Empire fell in 1453. Even those manuals drew heavily from De re militari despite its haphazard flaws.

  3. Scuttlebutt: A lot of Western strategic thought was proprietary tacit knowledge passed orally and by example from practitioner to practitioner. This scuttlebutt was similar to the scuttlebutt Ralph Sawyer speculates was compiled by Chinese schools such as the Swun family into the original six of the Seven Military Classics (Questions and Replies between Tang TaiDzung and Li WeiGung dates from the early Tang dynasty).

If I were to draw a rough analogy between the Old Testament and De re militari in Chinese history, the Old Testament would be a compilation of all the major Spring and Autumn and Warring States‘ literature of one of the smaller seven warring states (Judah) redacted by a Legalist-leaning Confucian (the Deuteronomists of Josiah’s reign) right before Chin (Neo-Babylonian Empire) completed its conquest of China (Fertile Crescent) and then re-redacted by Szma Chyan (Ezra) in the early days of the Han (Achaemenid) Dynasty. The theme of the Deuteronomists (“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Judges 21:25) is similar to a strong theme emphasized by editors of the Seven Military Classics that China had to be unified under one authority (“all under Heaven” (TyanSya) to eliminate the disorder of warring states during the Warring States era. This theme was recently expertly propagandized by the Beibing Regime in the interesting Jet Li film Hero on Jau Jeng.

De re militari would be a compilation of stray bits of the six existing Seven Military Classics studiously assembled by a public-spirited provincial Confucian scholar with no military experience and submitted as a memorial to the Late Han court in the hopes that its ancient virtues would rouse the court to reverse the collapse of the dynasty.

The Western strategic tradition after 1500 drew heavily on works synthesizing De re military and more recent recovered works from antiquity like Polybius and especially Livy. Wikipedia relates this example of a direct transmission from antiquity to present by Willem Lodewijk, Count of Nassau-Dillenburg to his cousin Maurits of Nassau:

William Louis played a significant part in the Military Revolution of the 16th – 17th centuries. In a letter to his cousin Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange of December 8, 1594 he set out (from reading Aelianus Tacticus) an argument around the use of ranks by soldiers of Imperial Rome as discussed in Aelian’s Tactica. Aelian was discussing the use of the counter march in the context of the Roman sword gladius and spear pilium. William Louis in a ‘crucial leap’ realized that the same technique could work for men with firearms.[1]

” I have discovered evolutionibus [a term that would eventually be translated as “drill”] a method of getting the musketeers and others with guns not only to practice firing but to keep on doing so in a very effective battle order (that is to say, they do not fire at will or from behind a barrier….). Just as soon as the first rank has fired, then by the drill [they have learned] they will march to the back. The second rank either marching forward or standing still, will then fire just like the first. After that the third and following ranks will do the same. When the last rank has fired, the first will have reloaded, as the following diagram shows…

Most works written from Machiavelli to Guibert were books on tactics, what Clausewitz (no mean military historian himself) called the “science of war” (as opposed to the “art of war” which correlates more with strategy than tactics). Guibert seems to be the one who revived modern use of the term “strategy”. The term “stratagem” survived and passed into English separately.  

The book to read on the evolution of the Western strategic tradition is Beatrice Heuser’s The Evolution of Strategy. Readers may be surprised to find how poor scholarship on Western strategic thought really is. Heuser also published a selection of translations from neglected European military writers between Machiavelli and Clausewitz. 

Most of them lie outside the Received Narrative of current Western military thought that tolerates ahistorical abominations like the “Western Way of War” which hold that face to face infantry battle was the go to Western tactic from Marathon to present without specifying how this supposed continuous thread was transmitted from Greek to Roman to Frank and so forth.


John Lynn, who Greer cites in the footnotes to his post, has written that the medieval Western Way of War was more in the spirit of De re militari (“the main and principal point in war is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than the sword” or “”It is better to beat the enemy through want, surprises, and care for difficult places (i.e., through maneuver) than by a battle in the open field”). De re militari, unlike the mythical Western Way of War, represents a continuous transmitters of such ideas as manifested in the tactics like the chevauchée used during the Hundred Years War.

Some other miscellaneous notes on Greer’s post and footnotes:

  • A good resource for learning more about Japanese strategic tradition during the Age of the Country at War (a direct riff on China’s Warring States period) is the Samurai Archives podcast by some folks at the University of Hawaii.
  • Edward Luttwak, who can disable much larger men using a variety of nerve pinches, suggests the Shahnameh is the core of Persian strategic tradition derived from the “writings of pre-Islamic Persia”. The Illiad and Odyssey probably played a similar role for the Greeks and Romans but the influence of those epics was diffused in medieval Latin Christendom because they weren’t available in Latin and mainly passed through derivative works like the Aeneid.   

It’s the division of power, stupid

America is oppressed by consolidated power. The only check on the tyranny of this consolidated power is the liberty of dispersed power.

Consolidated power is a fatal bottleneck. It forces America’s attempts to learn and change through those few hands that hold all the power. While those few hands may contribute toward fruitful learning and change, those few hands may also be exactly what must be unlearned and changed.

Tilting the balance of power in favor of good fruit and away from bad fruit requires a wide and deep division of power. Only then can unconsolidated power centers independently reward good fruit and punish bad fruit. The liberty America was supposed to be founded is based on the proposition that fruitful exercise of liberty is rewarded while unfruitful exercise of liberty is punished.

Consolidated power rewards the fruit of the few hands holding it irregardless its quality. With size comes powerful advantages: the economies of scale generated by consolidated power make doing whatever you do cheaper. Much of this increased affordability is realized in escaped punishments. Indeed, allowing escape from punishment is the main purpose of consolidated power. Unfortunately, escape from punishment makes doing good or bad equally affordable. There is a tradeoff between economies of scale and liberty. Liberty withers under the shadow of economies of scale. Any use of liberty exercised by those holding consolidated power is rewarded equally for good or bad while liberty for consolidated powerlessness is punished equally for good or bad.

The entire architecture upholding consolidated power is hostage to the competence in learning and changing of those happy few who hold consolidated power. If their competence fails, everyone all together is subject to sudden bursts of events that topple everyone all together. Punishment, long denied, falls on deserving and undeserving alike and great is the fall thereof.

Competence to learn and competence to change must be spread widely and deeply for social learning and change to be vigorous and robust. Foremost of all, competency in using power must be spread wide and deep. This is the fulfillment of liberty: creating competent self-government of power by rewarding good and punishing bad. If only the few have opportunity to exercise power, there is no liberty. The number of hands holding power will shrink to the lucky. Once those hands consolidate power, they will do everything in their power to consolidate luck in their hands regardless of their ongoing competence.

Sources of power must be diverse and must be in many hands. Interception and consolidation of control over the supply lines of society leads to consolidation of all power in a few hands. Then every incentive favors rewarding incompetent hands over competent hands.

The most reliable source of power remains violence. Assets backed by the sword have a durability and profitability that no other source of power can match. The first step in dispersing power is dispersing violent power broadly and deeply across the population.

Dispersal of power is often confused with separation of violent power from other forms of power. This separation is both mythical and unreachable. The source of violent power is other forms of power. Any consolidation of “non-violent” power leads inexorably to the temptation if not choice to supplement the uncertainty of non-violent power with the certainty of violent power. Consolidated power, whether initially derived from violent or non-violent power, inevitably leads to consolidated violent power. No wall of tissues will prevent one form of consolidated power from being transformed into violent consolidated power if left unchecked by opposing power.

Dispersal of power is often confused with localization of power. But localized power, if consolidated power, is just as oppressive as remote consolidated power. Dispersed power must be broad and deep. It must be broadly dispersed not only in the large but in the small, not only remotely but locally.

A local monopoly of power is as dangerous as a remote monopoly on power. One of the strongest drivers of consolidated remote power is when those oppressed by local power seeking relief from remote power. Remote power suppresses local power but by doing so remote power becomes remote consolidated power. Consolidated power in any form must be dispersed, locally and remotely. Current local consolidated power and its relief is the father of future remote consolidated power and its oppressiveness.

Dispersal of power means one thing: dispersal of all power, inseparably, as broadly and deeply as possible. Consolidated power in any area of power, however much its proponents tout the benefits of the economies of scale that it bestows, cannot be tolerated. The advantages economies of scale give with one hand today will be seized back with both of the hands that consolidated power unshackles tomorrow. Liberty must not be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. Efficiency now is inefficiency tomorrow: consolidated power dooms even the most efficient to consolidated inefficiency tomorrow as consolidated action is rewarded indiscriminately.

There must be balance in all things. Carrot must be matched by stick, violent power must be checked by violent power, wealth by wealth, liberty by liberty, parity with parity, and equal by equal. Tilting the balance of power within society tilts the balance of violence and ultimately the balance of terror. The result is inescapable: consolidation of power, consolidation of violence, and, inevitably, consolidation of terror. Terror will infest the weak and flee the strong. Violence will hurt the powerless and bless the powerful. Shifting balance will topple the unconsolidated and elevate the consolidated. Swings of fortune focused and intensified by consolidated incompetence and consolidated weakness will ravage all.

America, it’s time for a breakup. It’s the only way to remove the burden of consolidated power from liberty’s bowed shoulders.

Entrails of deceit (cont.)

In 2006, Barton S. Whaley produced a second version of Detecting Deception: A Bibliography of Counterdeception Across Time, Cultures and Disciplinesa comprehensive bibliography on counter-deception. He rates each work listed in the biography:

Each of the following bibliographic entries has been rated on a 0-to-5 star basis. These ratings represent: a) my personal judgment in areas of specialization as with much of political & military intelligence, conjuring, and the history & philosophy of science plus strong data bases in parts of sociology and cognitive psychology; and b) my assessment based on my own weak knowledge of some other domains or non-English languages checked against peer reviews and summaries. Note that these “stars” have been assigned not for a work’s general excellence but only for its specific relevance to detection and deception. Consequently, certain otherwise widely recognized creative masterpieces such as those by English mathematician Alan Turing (1950), German political theorist Hannah Arendt (1963), and American Nobel physicist Luis Alvarez (1987) get only 2 or 3-star rating here. And, for those readers who seek a “second opinion”, I supplement my own judgments with reviews (marked “REV:”) by third parties of many of the more controversial books and articles.

These are the works Whaley gives 5 stars:

Entrails of deceit (cont.)

Taxonomy of Deception

In 2006, Barton S. Whaley produced a second version of Detecting Deception: A Bibliography of Counterdeception Across Time, Cultures anda comprehensive bibliography on counter-deception (props MountainRunner, originally circulated by J. Michael Waller). According to Whaley, Detecting Deception has three goals:

  1. To be the first standard guide to the literature on detection and intelligence analysis in general.
  2. To point the reader to those specific writings most useful for analysis, research, development, teaching, or training.
  3. To alert the reader to the main competing theories and methods used for analyzing mysteries, particularly where deception is present.

Whaley’s introduction to his bibliography covers a lot of ground.

On the definition of deception:

[A]ny attempt—by words or actions—intended to distort another person’s or group’s perception of reality. And to keep matters simple, a lie is any statement made with the intent to deceive. These definitions avoid confusion with mere misinformation, incomplete information, or the truth value of statements. But they do permit us to include the authorized lies and deceptions practiced with our knowledge and approval by stage actors, magicians, and poker players. Moreover, this definition gets around the worrisome problem of self-deception. Instead, for our present purpose, the target of a deception is not oneself but always another’s mind.

On the “ideals” of deception and detecting deception:

The ideal deception makes the victim certain but wrong. Ideal detection reveals the truth behind the lie, the face beneath the mask, the reality under the camouflage. Good detection spares us from unwelcome surprises.

On the ideal outcome of deception:

Surprise? It’s only in the mind of the victim. Surprise is simply the perception that something (an event and/or the process by which it changes) is happening contrary to expectations. If we have a weak understanding of “ground truth” and how it changes naturally as well as how our perceptions of it can be manipulated by others, we’ll be often and greatly surprised. But, if we have a more-or-less accurate notion of events and processes we’ll be seldom and little surprised. It is the detective’s, the analyst’s job to understand these events and processes.

On “counterdeception”:

Counterdeception? Counterdeception is merely convenient shorthand for “the detection of deception” and is now standard jargon among specialists in military deception.

On the eternal nature of deception:

Our geographical environments tend to change slowly. Our social and political systems and institutions shift back and forth. It is only our technologies that have advanced slowly in antiquity, more rapidly since the Renaissance, and faster and ever faster over the past two centuries.  Intelligence analysts confront this most dramatically in the ever-growing volume of data, the increasing speed at which information is transmitted, the evolving technical sophistication of some communication systems, and the speed-up in long-distance transportation of personnel and materials.

But is this Revolution or Evolution? Although we speak of the Information Revolution or the Revolution in Intelligence or the Revolution in Military Affairs with even greater awe than a recent generation did of the Industrial Revolution, we exaggerate. The rate at which new information is generated was already great enough by the early 1800s that not only new disciplines but entirely new sub-specialties had to be founded to cope. Thus “biology” didn’t become a recognized specialty until 1819, “psychiatry” until 1828, and “physicist” until around 1840.

But psychology doesn’t change. Or, at most, imperceptibly over the past two or more millenniums through the slow creep of genetic mutation. The Greek atomist and Chinese Confucian philosophers, Italian politician Machiavelli, and English dramatist Shakespeare understood this unchanging nature of human motives, emotions, perceptions, and misperceptions long before our modern evolutionary psychologists rediscovered it.

Consequently, because deception is a psychological mind-game, it doesn’t change. However, the technology used to communicate disinformation does change. The only other changes are in our theories of how deception works and our techniques for detecting deceptions.

On the shared characteristics of great detectives:

  • They are curiosity driven, so much so that they will persist well beyond regular hours, returning again and again until the mystery is solved.
  • They have a “prepared mind”, one loaded by experience and/or education with a large enough data base to quickly recognize and evaluate analogous situations.
  • They are intuitive, logical but through pursuing other than direct linear thinking. Moreover, the logic they following is, specifically, not the familiar Deductive or Inductive types, but that less trodden path which for the past 12 decades has been known to logicians and theoretical scientists as Retroduction (or Abduction). See particularly Eco (1984) and Haack (2003).  Other scientists have called it variously The Method of Zadig, The Method, Inverse Probability, or my favorite, Retrospective Prophesy. This sounds like a contradiction in terms for anyone who thinks that any mystery has ever been solved or any deception ever detected by “connecting the dots.” In fact this is just projecting backward from an observed or reported effect (outcome) to its most probable cause (origin). This prime method of detection is not particularly rare. It is common among all theoretical physicists, most magicians, many mathematicians and medical diagnosticians, and some police detectives. It is, however, still too rare among intelligence analysts.

Entrails of deceit (cont.)

[A]round the end of 1942 [during World War II], when Major Oliver Thynne discovered that the Germans had learned to distinguish the dummy British aircraft from the real ones because the flimsy dummies were supported by struts under their wings. At that time Major Thynne was a novice planner with Brigadier Dudely Clarke’s “A” Force. When Major Thynne reported this interesting intelligence to his boss, Clarke, the “master of deception” fired back:

“Well, what have you done about it?”

“Done about it Dudley? What could I do about it?”

“Tell them to put struts under the wings of all the real one’s, of course!”

– from Cheating and Deception

In their book Cheating and DeceptionBarton S. Whaley and J. Bowyer Bell perform a genuine public service in exposing the inner workings of cheating:

While there are only six kinds of cheating there is only one way to cheat. To cheat, one chooses from one or more of the six categories one or more CHARACTERISTICS [MASKING, REPACKAGING, DAZZLING, MIMICKING, INVENTING, DECOYING] and fashions this into a RUSE that creates an ILLUSION of either COVER or EFFECT.

Flow of Deceit

The role of the ruse is key:

The RUSE is the process of choosing first the appropriate category, such as dazzling or mimicking, and then the necessary number of characteristics to create either a COVER or and EFFECT…There is an endless number of possible RUSES, just as one can consider an almost endless number of characteristics (going down, if need be, to the level of subatomic particles) but each must be fashioned by the planner from one or more varieties of the six categories of cheating…RUSES, whether used to COVER or EFFECT, themselves tend to fall into five categories:


In all five categories the RUSE fashioned by the planner creates a COVER or an EFFECT for the potential victim who, it is hoped, will accept the ILLUSION.

The illusion is where the ruse is tested by reality:

Once the appropriate category or categories has been selected by the planner, the necessary characteristics fashioned into a RUSE for one of the five basic purposes, either a COVER or an EFFECT—both illusory—exists. This is the crucial moment for the planner, for his opponents must accept the ILLUSION if he is to be cheated or deceived…the crux of the matter is whether the EFFECT or COVER will create an effective ILLUSION.

Entrails of deceit (cont.)

If art is all ILLUSION, aesthetic forgery, then there is some comfort in considering that science seeks the truth, reality, that both scientific practitioners and observers regard self-deception as a potential disaster on the road to discovery. Scientists at all times and places have, like most humans, been deceived by their own arrogance and pride, their commitment to the comfortable, their reluctance to speculate further than the first triumph. If a major scientific theory represents the conventional wisdom, most scientists will first try to discard contradictory discoveries or reluctantly attempt to fit them into the existing framework rather than discard the received wisdom. The dream of the artist is to make something new, but the flawed scientist does the reverse, often seeking to avoid the new under the assumption that reality is already to hand. In fact much of Western science is constructed on several assumptions—that the universe is complex but not malicious; that there is a real, explicable reality; that the rules don’t change; that the simplest explanation is best (probably right—a variant of Occam’s Razor). When there are too many “facts” to fit a theory comfortably, there is an uneasy feeling: since the universe is not malicious then the existing explanation is not simple enough, not adequately elegant—something is wrong. Cheating is not the intention of the scientific method, whereas it is the only means of the artist. The scientists ILLUSIONS may be more compelling than reality, but they are still ILLUSIONS, cheating by mutual consent.

– from Cheating and Deception

In their (perhaps disturbingly) detailed exploration of deception outlined in Cheating and Deception, Barton S. Whaley and J. Bowyer Bell diagram the cheating process:

Hiding -> Masking
-> Characteristics -> RUSE -> COVER -> ILLUSION
Showing -> Mimicking
-> Characteristics -> EFFECT ->

The cheating process always follows the Deception Planning Loop:

Deception Planning Loop

(It’s reminiscent of the OODA loop.)

OODA loop

Whaley and Bell elaborate:

The Loop is only half as complex as it, appears, since the analysis and design halves are mirror images of each other. The entire cheating process can be presented as a simple linear sequence from the senior commander’s strategic goal to the deception planner’s goal. The general wants to surprise the enemy and win the battle as part of a grand strategy to achieve total victory. To do so he resorts to a deception stratagem…If the enemy accepts the illusion then the general’s deception goal contributed to his strategic goal, winning. With rare exceptions successful deception requires a goal beyond deceit alone. Few cheat solely for the pleasure of so doing but in pursuit of some goal, and this is particularly true of military matters. Generally, cheating is a purposeful human activity that contributes to a greater ambition. And the process always follows the Deception Planning Loop defined by category, fashioning a RUSE from characteristics that are projected by selected CHANNEL as an EFFECT or COVER that, if successful, creates an ILLUSION made up of the perceived characteristics that is, therefore, a successful STRATAGEM supporting the Deception Goal and hence the Strategic Goal. Every time.

Flow of Deceit