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The Owl of Minerva Flies at Twilight: Doctrinal Change and Continuity and the Revolution in Military Affairs

Authored by Dr. David Jablonsky. | May 1994

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The line it is drawn The curse it is cast The slow one now will Later be fast

As the present now Will later be past

The order is rapidly fadin'

And the first one now Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin'.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's emphasis on change resonates for the American military today as it seeks to come to grips with what the Soviet Union once called the Military Technological Revolution (MTR) and what is now considered a broader Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) . "We are in the midst of a dramatic change in the relationship between technology and the nature of warfare," General William Odom has pointed out in this regard while concluding that no one fully understands that relationship. "Strategists must think about it, however, and try to uncover its inchoate ramifications . . . if they are to design an effective military doctrine and appropriate military capabilities for the coming decades."1 That, of course, is easier said than done. Throughout history, the interaction of technology and war has been as much the result of the arbitrary and the accidental as the inevitable and the necessary. "There are logical limits to what can be predicted about technological change," the authors of the National Defense University's Project 2025 concluded.

Revolutionary advancements are by their very nature unforeseeable. That they will occur is a near certainty; what they will be, however,is far less certain. Changes in technology of a less-than­revolutionary nature are difficult to predict as well. Predicting what advancements will be made implies that one knows that existing obstacles to developing a technological capability can be overcome. This implies, paradoxically, that one somehow knows the solution to the relevant problems in advance of their actual solution.2

What can help in all this is the knowledge that with change, there is usually continuity due to what Robert Heilbroner calls the "inertia of history." Inertia in this sense does not just mean resistance to change, but also what Heilbroner refers to as the "viscosity" of history--the tendency of people to repeat and continue their way of doing things as long as possible. Thus, despite the fact that the "normal" condition of man has been sufficient to warrant revolution, such occurrences are remarkable in history not for their frequency, but for their rarity.3 This continuity plays a key role in biology and evolution as Stephan Jay Gould has illustrated with the Panda's "thumb." Pandas are the herbivorous descendants of carnivorous bears whose true anatomical thumbs were used in those early days for meat eating. With the adaption of their diet to bamboo, the pandas required more flexibility in manipulation. Nevertheless, the pandas have since made do with their makeshift substitute, the so-called false thumb--a clumsy, suboptimal structure (a sesamoid thumb) which, however, works.4

That such suboptimal continuity can apply to technology is demonstrated by the survival of QWERTY as the first six letters in the top row of the standard typewriter. That grouping came about in the first place because in the crude technology of early machines, excessive speed or unevenness of stroke could cause two or more keys to jam, with any subsequent strokes increasing the problem. As a result keys were moved around to find a proper balance between speed and jamming. That balance was QWERTY, which slowed down the maximal speed of typing by either allocating common letters to weak fingers or dispersing those letters to positions requiring a long stretch from the home row of keys. This drastically suboptimal arrangement survived and has continued to dominate up to the present, because the contingency or historical quirk that led to the development was reinforced by incumbency, much the same way some politicians can dominate for a lifetime once they gain office and have access to privilege, patronage and visibility. The continuity which accompanies the quirkiness of history that produced the original condition is an accepted part of the human condition; for absent that quirkiness, man would not be on earth in an evolutionary sense to enjoy it. "We need our odd little world," Gould concludes, "where QWERTY rules and the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."5

The search for continuity draws the statesman and the analyst to the past, the start point in conventional wisdom for the process of understanding change. Some, most notably Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, would not agree. What man learns from history, the German philosopher pointed out, is that he does not learn from history--that, in fact, wisdom and direction only occur "when actuality is already there cut and dried after its process of formation has been completed." "The owl of Minerva," Hegel concluded in this regard, "spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk."6 Others see the sine qua non for dealing with the present and the future as knowledge of what has gone on before, the absence of which, in George Santayana's famous maxim, condemns man to repeat the past. This is sometimes perceived, however, as encouragement to policymakers who tend to assume that a trend in the past will continue into the future without considering what produced that trend or why such a linear projection might prove to be wrong. "Santayana's aphorism," Arthur Schlesinger has pointed out in this regard, "must be reversed: too often it is those who can remember the past who are condemned to repeat it."7

The answer to the problem of properly matching continuity and change lies in the process of what Richard Neustadt and Ernest May call thinking in "time streams." The core attribute for such thinking is to imagine the future as it may be when it becomes the past--a thing of complex continuity. Thus, the primary challenge is to ascertain whether change has really happened, is happening or will happen. "What's so new about that?" is the operative question that can reveal continuity as well as change. It is not, however, an easy matter to draw reliable distinctions between the two in advance of retrospect. How, for instance, could Herbert Hoover have known in the spring of 1930 that the accustomed past would not reassert itself. Certainly there was no guide in the experiences of the 1893-97 depression or the financial panics of 1907 and 1921. Nevertheless, such sudden change does not occur that often in history; and continuity remains an important anodyne from the past that can inform the present and the future. This is why somebody like Thucydides can seem so contemporary--why for instance, the contest between Athens and Sparta in The Peloponnesian War seemed to resonate again in the cold war, or why the expedition to Syracuse had overtones for America's "half-war" in Vietnam.8 Ultimately, this is why Hegel was wrong--why the owl of Minerva actually flies at twilight, leaving the student in the present as he looks to the past and the future, to ascertain how much of the flight occurs at dawn and how much at dusk.

Thinking in time can also help at the macro-level as the United States prepares to enter a new millennium in which the future is likely to remain as capricious as it often has been in the past. As recent events have demonstrated, there are always new "shocks" that can radically transform the loci of threats, opportunities, or power. Strategic thinking in such an environment has to deal with the relatively transparent threats that still abound while attempting to cushion the nation against the unexpected, whether in the form of environmental and human disasters, incipient hostile ideology, or sudden technological breakthroughs. But what is really new? Such an approach has been the norm throughout most of America's history. The sense of abnormality in the current transition period is actually an artifact of the cold war. It was the bipolar stability of that long twilight conflict that was the anomaly, the loss of which, as Henry Kissinger noted of a similar period under the 19th century European concert of powers, can come as a shock: "For in the long interval of peace the sense of the tragic was lost; it was forgotten that states could die, that upheavals could be irretrievable . . . . 9

In contrast, for most of American history, U.S. strategists have had to deal with a world in which the nature of prospective opponents, and particularly the degree of threat, were relatively more ambiguous than they were in the bipolar context of the global environment after 1946. "In many respects . . . the era ahead is ushering in a period of strategic normality," the authors of the NDU futures project have concluded. "To the historian writing in 2025, it will be the frozen simplicities of the cold war that will seem bizarre, not the strategic flux that characterized the periods before and after it."10

It is too early to know what those historians will say concerning the current efforts by the U.S. armed forces to deal with the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) . This monograph will attempt to demonstrate, however, that the American military, particularly the U.S. Army, has been thinking in time streams for a considerable period in dealing with its overall doctrinal framework and that as a consequence, a mix of continuity and change in that framework will carry it well and effectively into the vortex of the RMA. That journey will not be without significant problems, particularly in terms of using the fruits of the RMA to apply force across the range of military operations. But as this monograph will also demonstrate, those problems, as in such revolutions in the past, have more to do with politics and civil-military relations and cannot be fully addressed by military doctrine alone.

In any event, broad knowledge based on thinking in time can only reveal so much in terms of detailed change and continuity. Dealing with doctrine in the "peaceful" change of the post-cold war era will encounter similar difficulties. In such times, the owl of Minerva still flies at an undetermined twilight; and the military, as Michael Howard has pointed out, is like a sailor navigating by dead reckoning. You have left the terra firma of the last war and are

extrapolating from the experiences of that war. The greater the distance from the last war, the greater become the chances of error in this extrapolation. Occasionally there is a break in the clouds: a small-scale conflict occurs somewhere and gives you a "fix" by showing whether certain weapons and techniques are effective or not: but it is always a doubtful mix . . . . For the most part you have to sail on in a fog of peace until at the last moment. Then, probably when it is too late, the clouds lift and there is land immediately ahead; breakers, probably, and rocks. Then you find out rather late in the day whether your calculations have been right or not.11


When thinking in time streams, the key for the future is to recognize in the present those departures from the past--those changes which divert or have the potential to divert familiar flows from the accustomed channels. The pace of technological change is, of course, a departure from the past that has such a potential for warfare. For the military, which has less room for any illusions about the stakes, this is particularly important. "If you have lost a battle," G. K. Chesterton once noted, "you cannot believe you have won it."169 In all this, there is a need for a constant comparison between the present and past coupled with a sensitivity to prospective breaks in the continuity that will allow change to be expedited or limited, countered or accepted--at the very least guided. That comparison indicates that military doctrine and its organizational concomitant will play a key role in such an effort concerning technological change. This is the essence of what has come to be called the RMA.

But that comparison also draws attention to the continuity of war as a uniquely human activity, one in which a kind of "Murphy's Law" transcends the streams of time. Doctrine and technology, for instance, have rarely been in synch throughout history. And technological surprise has not often been achieved, and then only for short periods. Certainly, the utilization of force has not been rendered any more decisive or easier for any length of time by technological change. Nor has there been any easing of the tension that has traditionally marked the coexistence of military effectiveness and technological efficiency. The result is that RMAs have never been revolutionary in the sense of occurring--even in the expanded perspective of time streams--overnight. In all this, as Neustadt and May conclude, "it may help . . . to bear in mind that futures arrive detail by detail and that decisions lightly taken sometimes carry awful costs."170

The RMA that is currently unfolding will only add to the complexity of those decisions, particularly because of the sociopolitical changes which, as Michael Roberts has pointed out, accompany any such revolution. Thus, the Clinton administration's recent emphasis on the primacy of warfighting in the use of force is not a symptom of civil-military imbalance, but rather an acknowledgement that there is a need for prioritization of effort and that once the current transition is sorted out, the American people are not likely to support foreign ventures that are not clearly linked to U.S. national security interests. And that, at least for the foreseeable future, appears to rule out the First Wave form of war embodied in many OOTW missions, leaving the field to the warfighting that still combines the Second and Third Wave forms. But as we have seen, nothing is immutable when it comes to the utility of military force. As a consequence, theremay be a need for strategic leadership that resists a momentary, video-driven urge by the public for intervention in areas or situations of only peripheral interest to the United States. Or conversely, that leadership may require the molding of public support for such an intervention, either unilaterally or multilaterally, recognizing the broader need for cumulative credibility and moral leadership as the world's only superpower, even while acknowledging that the interest or interests involved remain peripheral and that involvement in such a venture can make American credibility an interest in itself.

In all this, the U.S. military must be versatile and flexible in dealing as much with political and social change as with that occasioned by technology. This adaptability will prevent the development of a hunkering in mentality as defender of the status quo. But it requires facing the issues of change and continuity head-on. In a similar period of complexity, medieval chivalry transformed itself into the disciplined professional cavalry that played a key role in European wars for 200 years. And the army of Frederick the Great reemerged at the hands of the great Prussian reformers from the disastrous encounters with Napoleon's revolutionary army to become one of the greatest war machines in military history. The efforts of the U.S. military in the wake of the Vietnam conflict were no less momentous.171

The 1993 FM 100-5 clearly evokes this theme of renewal in change and continuity, the essence of doctrine which "captures the lessons of past wars, reflects the nature of war and conflict in its own time, and anticipates the intellectual and technological developments that will bring victory now and in the future." 172This interaction provides, in turn, a dynamic environment--"a context," the Chief of Staff of the Army points out, "within which the debate over evolving doctrine can continue."173 The framework for that debate is the vertical continuum of war, a dynamic entity that "must be reflective of constantly changing strategic and tactical environments, and the operational art, whose job is to connect the two, must be responsive to all changes."174 The debate will help ensure in the future against the doctrinal equivalent of what has been called "the dead hand of Napoleon," a reference to the persistence of Napoleonic tactics and strategy long after they were rendered obsolete by changes in weapons technology.175 The debate will also keep the strands of change and continuity in balance as the Army prepares for missions in peace and crises as well as war.

The key to the Army approach is the retention of the three level vertical framework of war, spawned as the result of an earlier RMA that emptied the battlefield while it expanded the concepts of time and space. This doctrinal continuity maintains the focus on the primacy of the strategic level--all the more important because of the sociopolitical as well as technological changes that will accompany the RMA. In addition, there is a great deal of flexibility provided by the divorce of the framework from any particular size force and by its recognition that all power elements can play a role in the complex process of operational synchronization. It is a framework, in short, that accommodates OOTW as well as warfighting. And in fact, the increasingly compressed nature of the vertical continuum for warfighting is the normal state for many OOTW missions, in which it is almost a cliche that the actions of a soldier on point can have strategic and political results.

The flexibility in the doctrinal framework also provides room to examine the constantly shifting organizational tensions between coherence and dissonance, jointness and independence, and centralization and decentralization--particularly as they apply to the current Goldwater-Nichols structure, a rational organization designed for immediate response to a well-defined threat. Equally important, this flexibility allows for innovative give-and-take in the relationship of technology and doctrine. Too rigid a doctrine, as the French demonstrated prior to World War I, can impede an appreciation of military-technological changes. It is also important, however, that technology focused on immediate or near-term potential threats not hold back long-term operational concepts or R&D concerning technology focused further in the future. In the interwar years, for instance, the U.S. armed forces developed new concepts of operation that were to prove successful against future "A" level peer competitors, despite the fact that national policy and sentiment rejected such efforts because there were no obvious threats to vital interests. For the Navy, the result was innovative doctrine on carrier task force operations and amphibious landings. Equally significant, all this took place at the Naval War College in an environment free from the tyranny of the "in box," and at a time when Japan was not a U.S. enemy, when the budget for all the services together comprised less than one percent of GNP, and when the force structure for such concepts was nonexistent.176

Within the doctrinal framework, technology will cause warfare to become more, not less, Clausewitzian. To begin with, any society or group, whether trinitarian or non-trinitarian, has identifiable pressure points that a trinitarian state can reach and target without resorting to a fourth generational or First Wave response. These third generational responses, moreover, are normally applied as part of the larger employment of all elements of power, defined in terms of the trinitarian national state. The basic fact remains that it is still a state-centric world in which, as even van Creveld admits, only other technologically developed states can have a major impact on U.S. national security. "However spectacular the effects of non-trinitarian war," he writes, "and however tragic the fate of its victims, at present it is incapable of seriously threatening the security of Western states . . . . "177 All of this would assuredly still be unconvincing for John Keegan who, as we have seen, perceives technological developments as a major impetus toward a multicentric world. In reply, Michael Howard has pointed out the continuity of these views with those in Norman Angell's 1910 TheGrand Illusion--apaean to economic interdependence that faded in the hot August days of 1914. "I have an awful feeling," he concludes," that this is where I came in."178

It is in this state-centric world that the technologically induced compression of the vertical doctrinal framework only shortens, and thereby strengthens the link of war to policy. With time compressed over extended space and with that immense space rendered comprehensible by a technological coup d'oeil, an entire theater can become a simultaneous battlefield where events, as in the days of Napoleon, may determine national destinies. In addition, the horizontal, real time communication link to the vertical continuum of war only reinforces the interaction of the people with the other two thirds of the Clausewitzian trinity.

War, in other words, is still a political act. The sociopolitical effects of revolutions in military affairs that have occurred since the 16th century have only reinforced this fact. At the same time, as historical streams throughout this period indicate, there is always the danger that such "revolutions" may foster a narrow military view of professionalism focused purely on technical and tactical competence with technology viewed as the ultimate panacea, particularly in an era of downsizing. Part of the answer is to continue and enlarge upon the iterative civil-military process that grew out of the creation of the national security state during the cold war without succumbing to Huntington's subjective civilian control. "The exclusion of soldiers from politics does not guarantee peace," Bacevich reminds us. "It only guarantees that those who command armies in wartime will be politically obtuse."179 Part of the answer also lies in the continuity of U.S. military doctrine; for it is well to remember that operational art is designed to make warfare more effective in a Clausewitzian political instrumental sense, and that without a framework that keeps a doctrinal focus on the upper reaches of strategy, there is always the danger of technological efficiency overriding that effectiveness.

Implicit in both these answers is a third one, particularly important if the owl of Minerva is to fly at dawn as well as dusk as the RMA unfolds. For an understanding of the past is absolutely essential to the military professional if continuity and change in that "revolution" are to be understood in the present which, in Bob Dylan's words, "will later be past." Thinking in such time streams will require the same type of focus summarized by Michael Howard almost 30 years ago in his report on Service Colleges to the British Ministry of Defence.

There will always be a prime need for the fighting leader in the armed forces; but . . . today the junior fighting leader often needs to exercise a considerable degree of independent and informed judgement . . . while the demands made on his seniors find little parallel in any civil profession. To fit officers for so testing a career . . . it is as necessary to extend their intellectual powers as it is to strengthen their moral powers and their capacity for physical



1. William E. Odom, America's Military Revolution: Strategy and Structure After the Cold War, Washington, DC: American University Press, 1993, p. 47. "I believe we are in a revolution in methods of commanding soldiers and units in battle similar to the one that took place in the 1920s with the wireless radio and track-laying technology." Frederick M. Franks, "Full Dimensional Operations: A Doctrine For an Era of Change," Military Review, Vol. LXXII, No. 12, December 1993, p. 6. For the Soviet origins of the concept in terms of electronics and nuclear capability, see "The Revolution in Military Affairs," Soviet Military Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, Moscow: Voyenizdat, 1979, p. 82.

2. Alvin H. Bernstein, Director, Project 2025, Washington, DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, November 6, 1991, p. 36. See also Martin van Creveld, Technology and War. From 2000 BC to the Present, New York: The Free Press, 1989, p. 313.

3. Robert L. Heilbroner, The Future as History, New York: Harper & Row, 1960, pp. 193-197.

4. Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus. Reflections in National History, New York: W. W. Norten & Company, 1991, p. 61.

5. Ibid., p. 72.

6. Georg Wilhelm Friedreich Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, p. 7.

7. Original emphasis, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966, p. 91. See also, Ernest R. May, "Lessons" of the Past. The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. xi and 179.

8. Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time. The Uses of History for Decision-Makers, New York: The Free Press, 1986, pp. 257-266, 251 and 254. The ability to look at distant futures "with a clear sense of the long past from which those futures would come." Ibid., p. 248. Key questions are those "that shed light almost regardless of the answers." Ibid., p. 269. See also the section entitled "The Future as the Mirror of the Past," in Heilbroner, pp. 18-21. "These are times of both continuity and change, and must be understood as such. Complex changes are never complete breaks from the past." Maurice Mandelbaum, The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1977, p. 140.

9. Henry Kissinger, A World Restored, Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973, p. 6. See also, Fareed Zakaria, "The Core vs. the Periphery," Commentary, Vol. 96, No. 6, December 1993, p. 26.

10. Bernstein, p. 63.

169. Neustadt and May, pp. 255-256.

170. Ibid., p. 256. See also Ibid., p. 251.

171. Howard, "Military Science," p. 8; and Toffler, p. 180.

172. FM 100-5, 1993, p.v. "There are some major departures from the previous doctrine, but great continuity as well." Franks, p. 7.

173. Gordon R. Sullivan, "From the Editor," Introduction to Military Review, Vol. LXIII, No. 12, December 1993, p. 1. "History, after all, has proved that learning organizations are winning organizations." Ibid.

174. McDonough, "Operational Art," p. 109.

175. Schneider, "Vulcan's Anvil," p. 22.

176. Bracken, p. 172. But see the great difficulty Andrew H. Higgins had in overcoming Navy and Marine Corps resistance to his concept for an assault boat based upon the design used in the Louisiana bayous by fur trappers and oil prospectors. John W. Mountcastle, "From Bayou to Beachhead: The Marines and Mr. Higgins," Military Review, Vol. LX, No. 3, March 1988, pp. 20-29.

177. Van Creveld, Transformation of War, p. 61. "Don't throw away your copy of On War just yet, for instead of being 'radical' van Creveld's reinterpretation of Clausewitz ends up just being silly." Harry G. Summers, Jr., "Book Review on Martin van Creveld's The Transformation of War," Strategic Review, Vol. XIX, No. 2, Spring 1991, p. 60. See also McKenzie, p. 58.

178. Michael Howard, "To the Ruthless Belong the Spoils," Book review of John Keegan's A History of Warfare, The New York Times Book Review, November 14, 1993, p. 10.

179. Bacevich, "New Rules," p. 19.

180. Michael Howard and C. R. English, Report of the Committee of Enquiry Into Service Colleges, July 29, 1966. Quoted in Michael Brock, "Michael Howard's Contribution to Historical Studies," War, Strategy, and International Politics. Essays in Honour of Sir Michael Howard, eds., Lawrence Freedman, Paul Hayes, Robert O'Neil, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992, p. 198.