Three Western approaches to war

The Western world has developed three intellectual approaches to war. The first is the “scientific”. The scientists interpret war as subject to abstract laws and principles. Systematically studied and properly applied, these principles enable anticipating the consequences of decisions, behaviours – even attitudes. The Soviet Union offers the best example of a military system built around the scientific approach. The Soviet state and Soviet society were organized on scientific principles of Marxism-Leninism. War making too was a science. The application of its objective principles by trained and skilled engineers was the best predictor of victory.

The second approach to war is the “managerial”. Managers understand war in terms of organization and administration. Military effectiveness depends on the rational mobilization and application of human and material resources. Battle does not exactly take care of itself, but its uncertanties are best addressed in managerial contexts. The United States has been most distinguished, and successful, exemplar of managerial war. In part, that reflects its underlying pragmatism: an ethic of getting on with the job. In part, it reflects a historical geography that since the revolution has impelled America to export its conflicts. From the disasters suffered by Harmar and St. Clair in the 1790s to the catastrophe of Task Force Smith in Korea in 1950, without effective management successful fighting has been impossible.

The Germans have understood war as fundamentally an art form. Though requiring basic craft skills, war defied reduction to rules and principles. Its mastery demanded study and reflection, but depended ultimately on two virtually untranslatable concepts: Fingerspitzengefuhl and Tuchfuhling. The closest English equivalent is more sterile phrase “situational awareness”. It emphasized speed and daring, manoeuvring to strike as hard blow as possible from a direction as unexpected as possible. That mentality depended on, and in turn fostered, particular institutional characteristics: a flexible command system, high levels of aggressiveness, and an officer corps with a common perspective on war making.

Source: J. Olsen, M. van Creveld. “Evolution of Operational Art”.