Don't Confuse Me With Facts.
They know what they think.
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There are fashions in anticipating and writing about armed conflict, its nature, its causes, its purposes and its consequences, just as there are in everything else. These fashions don’t necessarily reflect realities as they are now and as they change, and in fact may run counter to them. So it’s essential to try to separate genuine changes in aspects of conflict both from excitable exaggerations on the one hand, and from the denial of changing reality on the other. That said, I have a feeling that we are at the beginning of a genuine transformation of conflict, for the first time in many years, after a generation or more in which some conceptual models of conflict have become briefly fashionable, only to become almost instantly outdated. Others can perhaps explain the nature of this transformation better than me. For this week I want to focus on the main obstacle to it being widely recognised: the fixation of the Western Security Complex (WSC) on things it thinks it knows, and its determination to deform everything that happens into models it thinks it understands.
You can see this a bit in the way that the conflict in Ukraine is described: I don’t mean in terms of victories and defeats , or even the performance of individual weapons systems. Rather it’s the discourse—that word again—that interests me. If you’ve read some Ukraine article by a pundit that seems illogical and even incomprehensible, it’s usually less a problem of expression than a problem of understanding. Writers who don’t understand what’s going on, and can’t make sense of events as they unfold, nonetheless have to try to find words to describe it, so they use the words and the verbal and intellectual formulas they have to hand, even if they are detached from the reality. At its simplest, we can say that a half-recalled vocabulary from wars of manoeuvre and counter-insurgency has been called into service to describe a war of attrition. The discourse of the war of attrition is simply not well enough known or developed for it to be used and understood correctly, and anyway, the consequences of using it might be politically dangerous, because the wrong side might appear to be winning. Thus, the endless, nerdish obsession with square metres gained and lost. At least that’s easy for everyone to understand.
Put simply, most people who write on the war in Ukraine don’t really understand what it’s “about” in any important sense. That is to say, they may notice individual events, but they have no idea of how to fit them into a wider framework that makes any kind of overall sense, because the words and concepts they have at their disposal—the totality of the discourse—is not the right one. It’s like trying to describe a cricket match while being limited to the vocabulary and concepts of rugby. So far as I can see, the same thing seems to be happening with Gaza.
Now of course much effort has gone for many years now into trying to predict the changing nature of conflict, and trying to explain what happened after the event, and developing whole new discourses to do so. It’s lucrative, and careers have flourished as a result. If you are interested in this kind of thing, you may remember the Revolution in Military Affairs for example : a set of ideas that was never very coherently expressed, and was always highly controversial, but which saw warfare permanently changed beyond recognition by the application of new cutting-edge technology. As often, the revolution was delayed, and whether it even happened at all is now a matter of debate and conjecture. But this is only one recent, extreme example of the way in which conflict has been competitively re-conceptualised and re-discoursed by theorists before the event, journalists and pundits during the event, and historians afterwards. You may also recall how warfare was going to become increasingly virtual, with cyber-armies grappling with each other in the sky, while old fashioned combat scarcely featured. And as you might expect, business model pressures mean that there is an inbuilt tendency to over-interpret short-term changes and innovations as long-term and fundamental ones, and to expect far more from a new technology than it can provide.
Now it’s one thing to make predictions about how wars might eventually be fought: it’s quite another to see those predictions borne out or not in real life, in real time or in later analysis, and to understand why they are (usually) wrong. In this context, it’s worth recalling that in conflict there seems to be a good rule that the really serious defeats primarily involve the level of concepts and assumptions. Of course, manpower, equipment and professional skill count enormously as well—you can’t win a battle with concepts—but at a deeper level you can’t win either unless, as Sun Tzu said, you understand the enemy as well. A good example, is the comment by Marc Bloch, the French Resistance hero, that “we fought the battle of 1914 but the Germans fought the battle of 1940.” Now Bloch was a distinguished medieval historian, and he knew about mentalities and how they change. The difference in 1940 was not that the Germans were numerically superior (they weren’t) nor that their equipment was better (it wasn’t) nor that they were better trained or better led. In the few pitched battles that actually took place, the French inflicted casualties on the Germans similar to those they later suffered in the East. It wasn’t that. And indeed, the French did everything they could. The Maginot Line blocked off the only direct route of attack, forcing the Germans to go through Belgium as in 1914. The French and British hoped to fight a delaying action, stopping the Germans in Belgium as before. The possibility of a subsidiary thrust through the Ardennes was understood, but then there was a whole Army deployed there just in case it happened.
But the problem was not there. The Germans, resource-poor and needing a rapid victory, gambled on, if you like, a new discourse of war, what later Anglo-Saxon historians were to christen Blitzkrieg. It relied not on frontal assault, but on deep penetration, avoiding concentrations of French and British forces, and attacking headquarters, appearing suddenly in the rear areas. Above all, it relied on advanced communications, between forces on the ground and between those forces and the Luftwaffe. Now none of this was inherently difficult or complicated to formulate: military theorists in several countries had been developing ideas for breakthroughs and disruptive operations in rear areas since the 1920s. But it was, by definition, an offensive doctrine. The British and French, with no territorial ambitions after Versailles, were inevitably on the defensive, and at that stage there was no effective defensive doctrine to counter this new and radical offensive one. Without a doctrine, you can’t have equipment or training or plans, and in this sense, as Bloch correctly understood, the “strange defeat” of 1940 was primarily intellectual. Only over the next few years did people begin to better understand what this new offensive doctrine actually was, and so develop ways of dealing with it.
Interestingly, though, some historical memories are more powerful and influential than others, and this was one. The idea of massed tank forces as unstoppable in 1940 (no longer true by 1943, still less by 1945) remained in the memory of the Western Strategic Complex (WSC) for a very long time afterwards. The tank became the symbol of unstoppable military power, like the knight of old, an interpretation reinforced by the easy victories of Israel in the 1967 war. The use of cheap, unsophisticated, guided anti-tank missiles to destroy tanks only a few years later, in the 1973 war, came as a profound shock to the WSC, which had not been paying attention. As this is being written, videos are circulating of Hamas drones dropping explosive charges on Israeli tanks.
Yet even at the time of the 1973 war, work was already advanced on protective measures against missiles. Compound armour, explosive reactive armour and active counter-measures such as laser dazzling have been progressively developed ever since. So the fact that in Ukraine tanks with advanced armours have survived missile strikes came as a surprise because it appeared to contradict the accepted discourse. And now in turn the ability to target and destroy tanks with missiles with two-stage warheads and individual artillery shells has confused the discourse even further. The poor WSC doesn't know what to think.
But what’s really interesting is when this discourse problem applies at the strategic level. In that case, not only do you not understand what’s happening on the ground, you don’t understand what your enemy is trying to do and why. Thus, the French in Algeria thought they were fighting a conspiracy directed from Moscow to break France in two once more, and establish a forward bridgehead for an invasion of Europe from the South. A little later, the South Africans thought they were defending against preparations for a Russian/Cuban invasion of the country through Angola and Namibia, to take control of the naval base at Simon’s Town, and to cut off maritime trade around the Cape. Oh, and in Vietnam the US was convinced that the Viet Cong were organised and controlled from Hanoi, rather than being at least a semi-independent force, and wasted immense efforts trying to find the (non-existent) national HQ. The West believes today that the Russians are trying to … well, it would be easier if they did have some kind of a coherent interpretation.
As I’ve indicated, discourses also follow fashion. So one of the most influential and long-lived discourses for explaining conflict in Africa remains the idea of the “tribe,” and its consequent assumptions of ethnic conflict. Yet this is a discourse imposed on Africa by Europeans, in line with the fashionable pseudo-scientific racial theories popular at the time of European expansion at the end of the nineteenth century. In fact, “tribes” were essentially political units, and individuals and sub-tribes could and did move from one to the other over time. We actually know more than may be supposed about warfare in the pre-colonial period. It was not about conquest of territory, since there was far more territory than any ruler could want, and anyway communications were poor, so conquest would have been very difficult. In a world without money as we understand it, wealth consisted of slaves, precious natural resources and animals, and many conflicts were about acquiring or retaining these. Yet even today, the WSC has difficulty understanding that conflict in Africa is about much the same things as anywhere else: political ambition and access to resources and money. The ultimate expression of this was probably the WSC-approved discourse of the terrible events in Rwanda from 1990-95, which racialised a vicious political power-struggle into a racial conflict between “ethnic Tutsi” and “ethnic Hutu,” even suggesting that there are physical differences between the two “ethnicities.” (Not obvious to the visitor, I must say) This is still happening: the conflict in Sudan was long interpreted as being between “Arabs” in the North and “Christians” in the South, whereas it was (and still is) really about the balance of power and control of wealth between political units, some of which instrumentalise religious differences. And to complicate things still further, there are of course groups like Boko Haram and the various offshoots of the Islamic State for whom religion is a fundamental mobilising device, though ethnicity isn’t. No wonder the WSC is confused.
As I’ve pointed out before, the besetting sin of the WSC is its arrogance, and its belief that it understands the world, and can divide it into those who are Like Us and Not Like Us. Nuance, which is many ways is what international politics is about, is therefore completely lost. One of Jean Gebser’s key insights was the way in which human culture has moved from the concept of polarity (essentially a continuum) to duality (one or the other.) So the “bipolar” discourse of the world of the Cold War was really a form of duality: either/or, them/us. The reality of a world in which states and cultures situate themselves on a continuum, and move with relative ease along it, has always been difficult for the essentially dualistic WSC to grasp. If you are Like Us, then you are like us in all respects. If you are not Like Us you are totally foreign. Such a discourse cannot accommodate the fact that states around the world manoeuvre to suit their national interests, sometimes coming closer to Us, sometimes retreating, and sometimes even daring to enter into arrangements which do not involve Us at all.
The final way in which the Western Security Complex has a discourse problem is the idea of the use of its (inexpert) understanding of history as a guide to the present and future, and a point of reference for comparisons. I’ve already mentioned the confusion over the strengths and vulnerabilities of the tank, where the dualistic nature of WSC thinking is on display: for some, “the tank conquers all” becomes “the tank is obsolete,” thus leaving unanswered the question of how armies can have mobile, protected firepower in the future. For others, the aircraft carrier has gone in a couple of decades from being an indispensable arm of US world domination before which we should cringe, to an outdated and very expensive target. Which is fine, until you want to project power somewhere, since neither missiles nor submarines on their own are very good at taking and holding territory and controlling airspace.
One especially popular point of reference is World War 1, even if these days the references are largely unconscious and highly distorted. Nearly fifty years ago, Paul Fussell showed how the vocabulary and many of the concepts of that War had become entrenched (as it were) in the English language and in everyday ways of thinking and speaking. But Fussell’s own book was written at the point where the dominant discourse about the War which had been established in the 1920s was at its height. This discourse saw the War first as a period of reckless optimism on all sides (“home by Christmas”) and then as a terrible, pointless, grinding struggle led by criminally incompetent Generals, until, for some unexplained reason, the Germans started to collapse, and surrendered unconditionally.
This remains pretty much the standard WSC discourse even today, yet specialists have shown it to be completely false. Not only did the armies of both sides experiment endlessly with different ways of breaking the stalemate, but significant improvements in weapons and tactics were being made all the time. Likewise, it was not the military, for the most part, who promised a quick end to the war, but the political leadership. The theoretical studies of Jan Bloch and others had already shown that new technologies and the capacity for mobilisation of the population and industry risked making the next war a long and exhausting struggle. And when the initial war of movement came to an end as the armies could not try to outflank each other further, that proved to be the case. The war became one of attrition: breakthroughs were still possible, but could not be exploited because commanders had no way of knowing where on the front the breakthroughs had taken place. Not until the mass deployment of radios from the 1930s onwards was this problem partially resolved. It was thus that the war became one of attrition, won essentially by the great battles of Verdun and the Somme, because the Allies had more resources and more manpower. But attrition is hard to conceptualise and hard to glamorise, which is why the WSC has stubbornly failed to accept it, just as it refuses to accept that the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945 was a war of attrition as well.
This is important not just because it is interesting (well, I find it interesting, anyway) but because it has shaped the thinking about conflict ever since. In reality, all of the guerrilla wars and wars of independence post-1945 were essentially wars of attrition, but not recognised as such at the time. For twenty years, pundits obsessed over who controlled how much of Afghanistan, whereas the real question was how long it would take attrition to eat away at the determination and capability of the US to stay in the country. This was not news, or should not have been: the same thing had happened with the French in Algeria, the Portuguese in their African colonies and the South Africans in Angola and Namibia. Attrition is not just about manpower and equipment, it’s also about money, industrial and technical resources and most of all political commitment. Which is why this argument is so important in the case of Ukraine. Let’s turn to that conflict now, with a few sidelong glances at what we know about Gaza.
In Ukraine, the West has some intellectual understanding that the war is a war of attrition, but the power of the WSC discourse is such that this is frequently lost sight of. In many ways this isn’t surprising. The WSC—the Liberal mindset at war—looks at conflict as it looks at everything: from a lofty position of complete understanding, based on the universal applicability of a priori normative assumptions. The Liberal mindset as a whole, recall, sees itself as “practical”, and scorns long study and detailed analysis. It sees learning for its own sake as largely pointless, since it knows all the important answers anyway. Universities are only important for acquiring certificates an knowing where to find the detail: technical training is a joke, and for inferior mortals. So Liberal society admires the smart person rather than the intelligent, the quick-witted rather than the expert, the advocate who argues well on the basis of a quick scan, rather than the academic expert with deep knowledge.. It exalts the financier who makes a fortune out of speculating in pharmaceutical stocks above the doctors and researchers who have actually done the work.
The Liberal mindset is thus resistant to learning and the analysis of experience, not least because that might force a modification of some a priori ideas. And these ideas tend to be normative, emotional and moralistic. That’s not surprising: anyone with even a faint acquaintance with psychological research on decision-making knows that our fundamental decisions and opinions are overwhelmingly initially arrived at in the unconscious mind first. The conscious mind seems to function largely as a mechanism for providing an intellectual and rational gloss to opinions already formulated on subjective and emotional grounds. So the Liberal mind, uninterested in detail, unwilling to learn, and working from largely-arbitrary a priori ideas, responds emotionally and often angrily, to ideas and even facts that challenge its gut reactions. Don’t confuse me with facts, I know what I think, as the late Mrs Thatcher said on more than one occasion.
I’ve pointed out a number of times that the Liberal mind, in its many, often conflicting, forms, is inherently normative and moralising. This means that it responds to questions, debate and criticism not by engaging with the issues, but by shrill personal attacks on those who disagree. There’s nothing more satisfying and addictive, after all, than the feeling that you are superior to others by virtue of your normative assumptions, and that you you therefore think and speak on a higher plane than those who would try to confuse you with facts. This seems to be a universal tendency within the factions of the Western Security Complex, for all its internal incoherence : I have, for example, never seen a thoughtful and carefully argued piece of WSC punditry on Ukraine, and I don’t expect to see one on Gaza. A superior attitude of moral and normative judgement does service instead, and relieves you of the need to actually know, and even more learn, things.
So try to explain the tangled history of Ukraine and Russia since 1991, and you are a Putin-loving Russian agent. Try to explain the background to the recent coups in West Africa, and you are an apologist for neoimperialism. Try to explain the probable causes of the Hamas attack, and you are a sympathiser with baby-killers. Some of you may already have had exchanges like the following:
So why do you think this attack took place?
A combination of fifteen years of imprisonment and sanctions, and a sense of betrayal by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.
But you can’t possibly say that justifies all this killing!
We’re not talking about justifications, but explanations.
So you refuse to condemn Hamas then?
You asked me why I thought the attacks took place.
Ah, you must support Hamas.
The advantage of this kind of ad hominem, normative approach is precisely that you don’t need to know anything: indeed, knowledge itself is suspect because it might eat away at your sense of moral and intellectual superiority. Practitioners of this tactic feel (or seem to feel) the certainty of Knowledge about the world that we associate with revealed truth, or the writings of the Gnostics. It follows that everything contrary that cannot be denied can be, and must be, assimilated to this Knowledge, which is a scheme of thought (?) forcibly imposed onto a complicated world. Those who Know, for example, that Washington is behind everything of importance that happens in the world have already decided that the war in Gaza must have been carefully planned by Biden and Netanyahu to provide an excuse for, well, let’s say attacking Iran. All contrary evidence can simply be dismissed as Iranian/Russian propaganda that the rest of us are stupid enough to accept, or very clever western disinformation. And those who Know that evil must be fought wherever it happens, looked at one video from Gaza, freaked out and demanded that the Palestinians be punished. Don’t confuse me with facts, I know what I think.
The Liberal tendency to impose prefabricated schemes on the world based on selective and often erroneous moralised readings of the past, and a priori assumptions about how the world works, has been fully on display in Ukraine, and I’ll therefore go through that in a bit of detail, with side-glances elsewhere. Let’s look first at the nature of the fighting itself (the theatre), then the wider strategic questions related to Europe and the West, then the strategic questions at the level of the world itself. In each case, it will be clear that the WSC is right out of its depth, and has no real idea what’s going on.
First of all, let’s look at Russian tactics and military objectives. Because the WSC can only conceive of others doing what it already knows about and has practised, it follows that other nations must in fact be doing what the West would do, even if they say they are not, and there’s no evidence that they are. The image the West has of large-scale military operations is pretty much limited to Gulf War 2,0, with its rapid movement of armoured units and capture of territory. For pundits, including military ones, that’s pretty much all they know, so it follows that it must have been what the Russians were planning in 2021. The fact that the Russians did not capture much territory therefore means that they failed. It doesn’t matter how many times the Russians explain that their concept of operations has nothing in it about capturing territory: they must be lying or simply wrong. So the WSC is convinced that the Russians were seeking a reply of Gulf War 2,0 and it failed.
But then there is talk of attrition warfare. We think we know what attrition warfare is: it was the terrible waste of life for no strategic gain that characterised World War 1, or at least 1915-17 on the Western Front. So in this case the Russians are like the Germans of 1914 who attempted to win the war by large-scale manoeuvre operations and failed, and then dug in. At which point the Russians then become the British and French, engaging in pointless attritional attacks, except that they aren’t really the Allies, they are the Germans, because everybody knows that in 2023 they are defending, except how can you engage in attritional warfare if you are defending, so they must in fact be attacking, which means that they must be suffering enormous casualties (60,000 casualties on the first day of the Somme in 1916, remember?) which means Russian Generals must be callous monsters trying to overwhelm the Ukrainians by human wave attacks, even if there’s no evidence of that actually happening. Trying to explain to a WSC pundit how an Army can have a posture of operational offense and tactical defence means that you are a buddy of Putin. Trying to explain what Hamas is up to militarily would cause the WSC’s collective head to explode, although if they had been paying attention they would already have looked at the tactics of ISIS in Iraq. Don’t confuse me with facts, I know what I think.
Because we know a lot about the Russian Army, or we think we do. There were all those popular histories of the eastern front in World War 2, written from interviews with German generals. Oh, and Stalin’s purges and the catastrophes of 1941, and the terror of the Red Army advancing into Germany in 1945, and Afghanistan, and then it all went wrong in the 1990s, and there were the Chechen Wars and nothing much has happened since, and the Russians are undisciplined barbarians who can’t stand up to western-trained forces operating western equipment. So if they haven’t collapsed they soon will. And of course the Ukrainian people will soon rise up against the conquerors and take to the deserts and mountains of Ukraine, forming tribal militias as they did in Afghanistan. Or something. Don’t confuse me with facts, I know what I think.
What’s clear for those with eyes to see is that the War is taking off in ways it has no right to. Drones and precision missiles, to name the most obvious, have changed everything. But the WSC, incapable by definition of learning anything, is simply helpless in front of all this, and so talks about what it knows and understands. A retired Major General from a western Army may perhaps have commanded a battalion on actual operations, and seen platoon-level actions, using small arms and light weapons with air support. Few western nations are actually capable of deploying a functioning Brigade-sized unit on operations, whereas the Russians have been chewing up whole Brigades recently. So people talk about what they know: capturing a village, attacking a bridge, attacking an airfield, daring special forces operations. All these are peripheral to a war of deliberate attrition, where the Russian aim is to grind down the Ukrainian forces and then move forward, as they did against the Germans eighty years ago. It’s impossible for western military experts (OK, that’s controversial, I know) to actually conceive of a war in which Ukraine has lost more men killed than the entire active and reserve strength of any European military. Even on the Russian side, and taking the most-likely figure of 30,000 dead, then with those casualties, as well as the severely wounded, the British Army of today would cease to exist.
The link to the higher levels is clear enough. The WSC certainly has long-term aspirations but it’s incapable of carrying out long-term plans. It’s fixated on the next move, whilst the Russians are busy re-designing the chessboard. The Russian view has been consistent for fifteen years, and has almost certainly hardened substantially over the last year and a half. They want the US out of Europe, Europe itself quiescent and respectful, and a large, disarmed area that they control, between them and the nearest western military power. This is an investment for the next twenty-five years, at least, and if it takes a bit of time, it takes a bit of time. Ukraine in a sense is collateral damage in all of this, since the Russians probably have no very precise idea of what they want there, so long as it is consistent with the overall plan. And rather than trying to understand what that plan might be, the WSC ignores that level entirely, and toasts the capture of a village, the destruction of an aircraft and the despatch of a clapped-out howitzer, as though these things were important. If they think of the higher level at all, it’s in the context of fantasies of the attempted re-creation of the Soviet Union. But don’t confuse me with facts, I know what I think.
And finally, even the new security order in Europe that the Russians are seeking to establish is only part of the ultimate goal: a world where political, military and economic power is more evenly distributed than it is now, and there is no hegemony. Moreover, it is a goal that they broadly share with other nations, with whom they cooperate on certain issues, to the extent that the various nations find it useful: a relatively subtle concept the WSC simply cannot understand. So far as I can tell, this has pretty much passed by the WSC by, for all that they whine and moan about unfair Chinese competition and the Wagner group operating in Africa. At their best, countries with a Liberal pragmatic tradition, like Britain, can actually be highly effective in the short term. But as you would expect, the same countries are terrible at any long-term vision, and find it culturally very difficult to entertain, let alone put into practice. In diplomacy, and often in war, the British tradition is of series of tactical victories crowned by a strategic defeat, because they were never able to produce and stick to a coherent vision. And this is the mentality which has taken over the whole western political class recently, with its obsession with the news cycle and the next tweet. It isn’t even that the Russians are playing seven-dimensional chess, it’s just that, like many other countries, they have some idea where they want to go, and all we know is that we don’t like it, and it’s not fair and we want to stop it. But that’s not a policy.
And now the WSC has pivoted effortlessly from Ukraine (with a brief diversion into francophone Africa) into Gaza. In the course of twenty-four hours, Substacks I receive that talked with utter certainty about what was happening in Ukraine, have begun talking with equal certainty about Hamas and Gaza, and largely echoing each other. Well, I have some experience in the region and have been involved a bit with its problems, but I don’t claim the kind of in-depth knowledge that would allow me to pontificate like that. But in Gaza, as in Ukraine, the WSC is unlimited in its confidence in itself, even as it is limited by what it knows and what it understands, and by its very feeble capacity for learning. If it pontificates endlessly, it is because so many business models depend on it. But they know what they think: please don’t confuse them with facts.