Modern Military Theory Echoes Post-WWI Ideas

WASHINGTON — “Helplessness induces hopelessness, and history attests that loss of hope and not loss of lives is what decides the issue of war.”

Sir Basil Liddell Hart, an early 20th century war theoretician, believed the path to victory was not through the trench warfare he saw in World War I with the British Army where force met force head-on. Instead, he posited that armies should attack weakness rather than strength, therefore causing psychological disruption to enemy forces. Liddell Hart argued that his way would win wars more quickly, and with far fewer deaths, than trench warfare.

By attacking the adversary’s command, Liddell Hart wrote, the British Army would sow the seeds of fear among its adversary’s military commanders and fighters, lessening their ability to fight back and giving the British the upper hand.

Gassed at the Battle of the Somme and invalided out, Liddell Hart eventually began to write his own ideas on military strategy. His strategies were adopted in later wars, and parts of his ideas still persist today in warfare, though in different forms.

“If you look today and at who writes about strategies that are like that, it’s hard to disentangle the trace of ideas and who influenced who,”said Dr. Mark Bucknam, a security studies professor at the National War College. “It would be incorrect, I think, to ascribe to B.H. Liddell Hart this indirect approach or the idea of attacking weakness. Sun Tzu, for example, talked about that 2,000 years ago, and it’s a fairly basic thing,”

A number of theorists studied today echo Liddell Hart’s “indirect approach” method, but modified and adapted for modern warfare.

Air Force Col. John Boyle is one such modern-day military tactician whose ideas share some commonalities with Liddell Hart’s work.

Boyle is studied extensively by the Marines for having created the OODA Loop, which stands for Orient, Observe, Decide, Act. Showing certain echoes of Liddell Hart’s theories, Boyle wrote that the OODA Loop, when performed quickly enough, would allow the U.S. to “loop” one’s adversary, giving U.S. forces the opportunity to observe how the adversary is reacting to them, and in doing so, deciding on a new course of action. This, according to Boyle, would paralyze and disorient the adversary, forcing them to respond to an onslaught of new actions before being able to figure out what they wish to do in response to previous decisions.

In such a way, he explained, one caused psychological disruption to one’s adversary, key to disabling the enemy, much in the way that Liddell Hart argued for psychological disruption as paramount to a better, less bloody, version of warfare.

Liddell Hart’s tactics might have been useful in a one-on-one situation, as were Boyle’s. The Marine Corps, however, has elevated Boyle’s ideas from tactics to the level of strategy.

But Bucknam said Boyle’s and Liddle Hart’s concepts are “for a very tactical situation, a one-on-one aircraft fighting a nogher aircraft and the Marine Corps wants to extrapolate that up to armies fighting armies, or bigger units in the field fighting bigger units. I don’t think it translates up.

“Consider that Napoleon still applies: ‘God is on the side of bigger battalions.’ People don’t just become paralyzed because you’re out-thinking, out-maneuvering them,” he said. “You have to have hitting power, you have to be able to sustain it, and you have to be careful that you’re making your decisions on good intel, otherwise you’re just making bad decisions faster.”