Wyndham Lewis has a number of claims on our attention. He authored the Vorticist manifesto contained in the first edition (1914) of the magazine Blast and then went on to write an autobiography entitled Blasting & Bombardiering which gave an account of his early life, including his experiences in the First World War. The titles imply a certain percussive bent, as would become not only a Vorticist but also an artillery officer specialising in forward observation and the guiding of artillery fire on to its target. Intriguingly, his account of adjusting fire from the vantage point of a tethered balloon anticipates the use of drones for the same purpose in Ukraine — but that’s another story.
The artillery arm that Lewis served in reached its apotheosis in the years 1916-18, captured by Wilfred Owen in Anthem for Doomed Youth as “the monstrous anger of the guns”. Field artillery had first been employed in Europe during the Hundred Years’ War. In the Thirty Years’ War two centuries later, the Swedes under Gustavus Adolphus, employing mobile artillery in support of infantry manoeuvre for the first time, swept all before them. It may be no coincidence that the most brilliant general of his own and perhaps any age, Napoleon Bonaparte, was an artillery officer. Though associated in the public imagination with the grand sweep of manoeuvre, his insistence on siting individual gun batteries reveals the prodigious capacity for absorbing detail that underwrote his breadth of strategic vision.
Interestingly, the Napoleonic age of warfare was succeeded in the mid-19th century by a relative diminution in the salience of artillery in battle, as improvements in the capability of small arms, such as the French Chassepot rifle, transformed the lethality of infantry engagements. Indeed, the British Army would enter war in 1914 with a preoccupation with the marksmanship standards of the individual infantry soldier; it would leave war in 1918 with a conviction won through bitter experience that artillery had become the dominant arm in land warfare. A trend that continued through the Second World War and into the present day — as the baleful record of, for example, the Soviet and Russian armies illustrates, from Berlin, through Grozny (twice) and on to Mariupol.
Things will change, as terminally guided munitions, the proliferation of drone technologies and, eventually, artificial intelligence shifts the traditional area effect of massed guns and rockets into a more discriminate and lethal point effect. This will create a dystopian efficiency that will deliver a near guaranteed bang for considerably less buck and will represent the next transformation of the battlefield. But until that happens the main purveyor of carnage in conventional war will be the artillery controller using established techniques, and it is the format of these techniques that gives a revealing insight into war and language. Artillery is never tasked to destroy, rather it is employed to suppress, to neutralise or to fire for effect. This is not tasteful military euphemism, simply a statement of empirical fact. Well entrenched infantry can survive even intense artillery bombardment while mobile armoured vehicles can be inconvenienced, perhaps disrupted, by artillery fire but not destroyed in significant numbers.
So what? Well, it seems the tactical level of war has found an accommodation with language that is spare, accurate and realistic which rather begs the question why do those pronouncing at the strategic level of war so often resort to rhetoric, hyperbole and over-ambition? This is not simply an issue of self-indulgent military semantics — the language political leaders use defines the strategic liabilities their societies must discharge and comes laden with consequence.
As the sitting President responding to a major attack on the metropolitan United States, it was perfectly understandable that George W. Bush should declare a Global War on Terrorism. Understandable, but not without complications. To be effective, military strategy needs clear objectives, a definable enemy and a recognisable theatre of operations. In particular, fighting a condition – at best a tactic – is hardly consistent with the clarity that is the first requirement of success. Also, while recourse to war was always understandable at a visceral level, it had the further disadvantage of making the terrorist groups it targeted cohere in a manner that would have been less likely had the attacks been regarded as criminal and subject to a civil response. Finally, a global condition that demanded to be addressed wherever it became manifest created an automatic asymmetry between ends and means that would eventually exhaust the strategic inventory of even the United States.
And how did it work out on the ground? The US campaign in Afghanistan allowed Donald Rumsfeld to indulge his iconoclastic instincts in combining massive firepower from sea and air with CIA agents wielding suitcases of cash to fund the outsourcing of ground manoeuvre to the Northern Alliance and domestic Afghan politics to Hamid Karzai. With only the lightest of touches on the contact battle, the Americans shattered the Taliban and drove them back to their villages or refuges in Pakistan. It only remained to flood the country with aid, internationalise its reconstruction, rehabilitate the moderate Taliban, accept the laurels of victory and walk away.
If the USA had chosen that course of action the West would never have spent its power or revealed its vulnerabilities; indeed, the course of the first decades of the 21st century might have been quite different. But a Global War on Terrorism could never be won in a single theatre and the tragedy of the Wars of 9/11 would only reveal itself over the following years. None of this was inevitable, human agency could have intervened at any point, but having set a bar at an unattainable height an American president created the pre-conditions for his nation’s strategic failure.
A similar situation is now unfolding in Gaza. Provoked by the abominations of the 7th of October, Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas and the Israeli Defence Force is embarked on operations to deliver that outcome. But how do you eradicate every human, material, intellectual and spiritual manifestation of a socio-political entity when, by the use of sustained lethal violence, you are granting it a spurious dignity of purpose? Remarkably, Hamas is enjoying the biblical condition of redemption through sacrifice and has only to survive in some vestigial form to claim a victory. In setting an absolute condition, Netanyahu has boxed himself in and anything short of an absolute outcome can only be seen as failure. Meanwhile, Israel’s international reputation is being shredded. Given what might now be described as the lived experience of European Jewry in the 20th century, the particularly bestial nature of the 7th of October attacks and the carefully weighted commentary of observers like Nigel Biggar (Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at Oxford), that takes some doing, but the Israeli government seems to have pulled it off.
How did mature democracies with seasoned leaders end up in such untenable positions? Maybe it’s something to do with the nature of strategy, for which a journalistic definition might be “tactics + politics”. Even in plural democracies, crisis sets a premium on executive leadership and the man or woman at the top is expected to be equal to the epochal events they are confronting. According to personality this can be intoxicating or intimidating and both are equally dangerous; only so many are capable of Roosevelt’s “a day to live in infamy” response to Japanese aggression in 1941. For the rest, the counsel of a Cabinet, the advice of military chiefs, a comprehension of historical context or even a rehearsal of the contingency as a regular national security fixture might go some way to shaping a response that more closely resembles statesmanship than bombast.
Then there’s the gritty nature of small P politics. If George Bush was not a captive of the neoconservative wing of his own party before 9/11, he became one after it. Equally, the composition of the Netanyahu government left him with little choice but to set an apocalyptic objective, if he was to survive politically. And beyond the machinations of politics lies simple human frailty. A glance at the video of Tony Blair’s — initially tremulous but ultimately fluent — speech to Congress in July 2003 shows just how seductive public acclimation can be and how even the most sober head might be turned.
So, it turns out that both political leadership and democracy itself are fallible. Nothing new there, but that is not the main conclusion to draw from this piece. The salutary evidence of the 21st century makes clear that the two acts of purposive nihilism carried out by Al-Qaeda in 2001 and Hamas in 2023 represent the most clear-eyed and effective examples of strategy in practice we have seen. By the ruthless application of limited resources, they have provoked responses so disproportionate and inappropriate that the international system we have known has been bent out of shape. We will live with the consequences for decades to come.
A Message from TheArticle
We are the only publication that’s committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make, one that’s needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout these hard economic times. So please, make a donation.