Episode 57: Eliot Cohen: Industrialised Precision Warfare

Professor Eliot Cohen, the doyen of grand strategy, talks to Peter Roberts about how the Western idea of war and warfare has changed to one with a 'purposive' nature, reflecting a society unaccustomed to the destruction and chaos of combat, and dissects the important questions that political leaders should be posing to military commanders, but rarely do.

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  • Peter Roberts: Welcome to the Western Way of War, a weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Service Institute on Whitehall and every week I'll talk to a guest about the issues around the Western way of warfare, national security and the Western approach to war. I'm delighted to be joined this week by Eliot Cohen, the Robert E. Osgood Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies where he's taught since 1990. Indeed he served as Dean there from 1990 until last month. Cohen received his BA and his PhD degrees from Harvard and after teaching there and at the Naval War College founded the strategic studies programme at SAIS. His books include The Big Stick, Conquered into Liberty and the one probably most familiar to our listeners, Supreme Command. In addition to public service in the Department of Defence, he served as a counsellor to the Department of State from 2007 to 2009. Eliot gave what I think is the best set of remarks I've heard at a conference at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference some years ago entitled 'Strategic Slumber and Pixie Dust.' Alongside the brilliant Supreme Command he's one of the most engaging and insightful people in print and in remarks, an unusual mix for scholars who can mostly do one or the other.


    Given all that I'm intrigued as to what he'll make of our first question. So, to situate him in our broader conversation about the West and war, Eliot Cohen, what does the phrase 'Western way of war' mean to you?


    Eliot Cohen: Well, first thank you for that very kind introduction. You know, I'm not entirely sure that there is a Western way of war which has been with us since the Hoplites. I do think that at different times over the last centuries it has meant some things that are very distinctive. At the moment what I would say the Western way of war is distinguished by is a level of scrupulousness about civilian casualties, about precision, about legality which is way beyond the norm. You know, if you look at our past has the Western way of war been completely ruthless and destructive? Yes but so has many other cultures' ways of war. Has it been purposive? Well, yes, some of the time but I think, once again, other cultures have used war in very purposive fashions. So, I think you really have to situate it in a particular piece of the continuum of history and at the moment the key distinguishing feature I truly believe is that level of scrupulousness, which is, maybe, in one way the right thing and another way a tremendous source of weakness.


    Peter Roberts: Yes, it's interesting, isn't it? Politically it's very hard to define a Western way of war almost philosophically as so different from either an Eastern way of war or a Russian way of war, or even the Prussian way of war. I mean, militarily I guess you can divide it up tactically as you said, you know, the use of precision weapons or manoeuvre or fire power, whatever it is, but this idea that more recently we've come to define a Western way of war around a set of morals or ethics, or values that we haven't done previously is something that is genuinely quite new. I mean, it's hugely fashionable and you can make movies about it. It's a wonderful almost biblical tone to the whole thing, right? It doesn't have a long historical legacy attached to it.


    Eliot Cohen: No and I'm not even sure it's biblical because when you look at the outcome of most wars in the Bible they usually end up with a mass extermination of one kind or another. Part of this is simply that technology creates a certain, kind of, set of possibilities for us which never used to be the case but I also think that Western societies have changed, and a way of war reflects the nature of the society in some measure but that's never really particularly fixed. We're still the same people who after all did Dresden and Tokyo and Hiroshima. So, it is the product of a particular moment but we're dealing with adversaries who I think don't have quite those compunctions.


    Peter Roberts: In many ways it feels like we've changed but they haven't. I mean, if we go back to the Cold War which we'll remember, there were less ethical and moral concerns when we thought about the fighting that was going to be associated with, you know, tactical nuclear weapons, with chemical biological weapons, which we foresaw as part of the great battle across mainland Europe. This was predictive, we trained so much in chemical, biological and radiological techniques of how we would continue fighting that it was largely preordained in many ways for us to expect this to happen, to train against it and to deliver against it and yet it's our expectation that has changed about what we think war should look like, perhaps those competitors, rivals, whatever we call them, the others, don't necessarily feel that way.


    Eliot Cohen: Well, part of this too it seems to me is the result of the long shadow of World War Two. In the immediate aftermath of World War Two people can certainly envision war being as terrible or if possible even more terrible than that conflict but we really are past the shadow of World War Two insofar as countries like the United States or Great Britain are concerned. That's partly because we've been living in such an era of security that it doesn't really occur to us that you might have to do something remotely as devastating as you did during the Second World War. I mean, even when, say, after 9/11 you had a substantial amount of violence inflicted on the United States, there still wasn't the necessity, although I suspect there would have been the will of, you know, levelling cities but there was a lot of determination but, again, you could do it in a way that was pretty precise. I think one of the things that may have also slipped away as the shadow of World War Two failed, which may not be the case with other cultures and civilisations, is an awareness that, at some level, what the wars of the 20th Century were about in many ways was breaking the will of the opposing society and not just defeating its armed forces in the field. That does remain a kind of fundamental truth about warfare which we would prefer not to think about but I suspect is still, you know, if there ever were to be another substantial conflict would very much be with us.


    Peter Roberts: It also feels like perhaps that society has developed these scruples because society as a whole hasn't really experienced warfare in the recent past and yet if you go to Aleppo or Raqqa and you see the devastation that is hugely reminiscent of Dresden or London during the Blitz or elsewhere, there are some real shifts in how people feel about warfare when it's a, sort of, lived experience. Very few in the West have had that experience brought home to them, there's only so much you can depict through news clips and the occasional film. Do you think there's something about, you know, when you say our society has changed, it's changed but during as you say this era of peace and security do you think it could obviously shift back?


    Eliot Cohen: Oh, quite easily. You know, for so many of these things the Israelis are a really interesting case study because that is a military that has shifted very much to a world of what the Israeli Chief of Staff, who's a former student of mine actually, Aviv Kochavi, calls industrialised precision. I mean, they really conduct precision warfare but even there I think you can say that they can afford to be-, and there are a lot of tactical advantages to precision, of course, but even they I think are still to some extent shielded from the reality of a war in which their homeland is really under massive attack, where you're taking not a couple of dozen civilian casualties but thousands. If, you know, which obviously we hope didn't happen, you had, say, an Israeli-Hezbollah war where Hezbollah by some counts has over 100,000 rockets stored away and they're unleashing thousands every day at Israeli cities, and Israeli civilians were dying in not the hundreds but the thousands, I think you'd very quickly see levels of violence unleashed which were much more reminiscent of what we saw in World War Two and the aim would shift to break the societal will as well as eliminating enemy forces.


    Peter Roberts: It's fascinating to me that leaders don't necessarily reflect society, not necessarily military leaders but political ones in this debate, right? So, it feels like political leaders are more in touch with the contemporary warfare than perhaps societies. They're willing to consider means that even military leaders won't think about in some ways because not that they have flashes of insight but they get the sort of long-term political ends and the requirements that might be required to get there. Do you think that's true?


    Eliot Cohen: I think it depends on who exactly it is that you're talking about. I mean, there are flashes of that. Somebody who does not always have a great reputation as a Commander-in-Chief, George Bush, I remember during the darkest time in Iraq when military leaders were quite willing to think about disengaging and they were in particular talking about extending deployments to Iraq. They said, 'Well, it could break (TC 00:10:00) the force if we don't begin drawing down.' He said, 'What will really break the force is losing a substantial war.' You know, there was a certain kind of human insight there and he was right and it was a serious strain on people to have tours extended from twelve months to fourteen months but I think having seen our forces in the field during that period you could tell that there was a profound morale difference as a result of the fact that they thought things were turning around as a result of the surge. So, it's true and political leaders do have a certain kind of insight that military leaders don't always have.


    Peter Roberts: They have a different perspective. I think you won't find military leaders who pose that question, you know, at the time there wasn't even a thought about, 'What would a loss mean?' That wasn't primary in people's minds and maybe that's what many Western states have almost forgotten, is that interplay between the political masters and the military leaders. You know, the instance over a comment by British Prime Minister at the time David Cameron who said to his generals, 'You do the fighting, I'll do the thinking.' There was a great deal of pushback about that but politicians should be bringing something to the fight, right? It's not just strategy, it's not just resources, it's a different way of thinking about the conduct of war and warfare.


    Eliot Cohen: Well, and I think one of the things that they should be bringing is asking the first order questions, particularly and, again, I'll go back to the idea of the long shadow of the Second World War. The big difference between our armed forces today, I would argue, and those of the '30s and '40s was that they've been massively institutionalised ever since then. They have their ways of doing business. I'll give you just a small example of this. So, the United States military got used to the idea of rotating headquarters, rotating entire units, brigades and above into theatres of conflict. That's just what they did because that's what they had always done. It took political leaders to begin asking, I wouldn't say necessarily particularly effectively, to at least ask the right question which is, 'Well, why are you doing that? Maybe it makes sense to rotate battalions but why rotate a divisional headquarters?' It's not like these are small groups of men and women going into combat all the time who need that kind of cohesion and the result was the loss of continuity and so on. I think that's a very important thing for us to remember that when you have these well-established bureaucracies that are used to operating in a certain way, sometimes it does take a politician to say, 'Well, hang on a second. Why exactly are we doing that?' Really, the question can be that simple.


    Peter Roberts: I had a conversation with a former Secretary of State in the UK who said, 'It's all very well you saying this sort of thing about how we should question them but do you know what? It's quite hard to go into a room full of military leaders who between them have got more than a century of military experience, albeit in the wrong sort of wars and you know it's the wrong sort of war, but they have their uniforms and their medals, and their combat stripes and their deployments and everything else under their belt. All the technical knowledge and for little old me to turn around to them and go, "I don't think this is right," it takes quite a leap sometimes.'


    Eliot Cohen: Yes. Look, it is and I remember I had two sessions with President Bush on Iraq strategy and the first one in retrospect I whiffed. The second one I was actually considerably more straightforward but that's because my son was about to be deployed in an infantry brigade and so I was feeling chippier (ph 13.43) but it's very hard when you're dealing with any kind of authority. I think the way to do it is to ask the very basic kinds of questions and not be put off by answers that are not convincing. That, it seems to me, is the most effective technique for civilians to actually begin to get things changed. One of the things that happens when you do that, of course, is one quickly discovers that the military is not a monolith and there may be some colonel who's a backbencher or some disgruntled two-star who actually has a different view, and that's by the way another thing that civilians can do. I mean, it can drive a certain kind of military leader crazy but don't be overly respectful of the chain of command and assume that the four-star is smarter than the one-star because they, of course, frequently are not. You see those games being played where people are playing generals off each other. You know, we had talked a little bit about what kind of questions one might ask, one is the Petraeus question, 'Tell me how this ends, what are we trying to achieve?'


    For me the most important question which I have an occasion to ask a few times was tell me why we think this will work? So much of government to include in the waging of war is about inputs. How many troops? How many diplomats? How much aid money? How many munitions delivered? How many targets struck? I think one of the things that civilians can very usefully do is just pose the question saying, 'Okay, I understand that we're providing all these inputs. What is the story that links the inputs to the outputs?' I'll just say one other thing about that. Amazon has been an extraordinarily successful company, one of the things that has struck me in everything that I've read about Amazon is that Jeff Bezos always insisted on if there's a new product or new initiative that it be framed as a story, not as a bunch of PowerPoints. I think that's probably the most effective way of getting people to think strategically. Say, 'Okay, tell me what the story is.'


    Peter Roberts: A lot of it depends though on the customer receiving the story, right? So, I was struck when we were talking about those big questions and, you know, how do we think this will end, is so many military plans I've seen at staff colleges and wargames, and exercises (mw 16.11). The plans that BlueForce comes up with are adversary agnostic, right? They don't look at warfare as a dynamic, they look at it as a one-way thing. And you get to those parts where they get so far down that they've got their metrics for success already predetermined about what will work out, agnostic of both the adversary and the public, and the white (ph 16.29) and the-, you know, the academic side behind this is that theory of change. What's your theory of change, right? It's a horrible phrase but lots of people are using it now. It's how does this work, right? Then why does it work? It's so critical.


    Eliot Cohen: Let me tie that, if I could, back to your opening question about the Western way of war. I said that I think it's really very much shaped by the time that we're living in. We talked earlier about the shadow of World War Two. What I think we're seeing there is also the shadow of the Cold War where you had this frozen conflict where staff colleges, particularly in the United States and the UK, were used to a very well-defined kind of opponent and a very well-defined sort of circumstance and thank God it never really went to war. We ended up fighting some real wars which were viewed as anomalous and that's how we ended up I think engaging in military planning against generic opponents as opposed to real opponents. That I believe will be a mistake for the future. The thing that's unfortunate that reinforces that is to openly speak about particular opponents these days is to risk various kinds of political kerfuffles which can range from embarrassing to, you know, serious diplomatic incident. So, people go pretty generic but, again, my own military experience was minimal but I was a reservist in the 1980s and all of our training it wasn't against the Soviets, you know, it was the OpFor, the opposing forces.


    There was nothing that made you think that they were actually thinking like Russians, I mean, you would learn what was essentially Soviet doctrine and so on but that was really more in templating, you know, where are they going to put the divisional artillery group and things of that kind. It wasn't actually training you to think about a real life reactive adversary.


    Peter Roberts: Whilst we know the theory of, you know, fighting the commander and not the force, don't fight the doctrine, fight the way the commander will fight. We've got this information about the adversaries we'll be facing but so rarely do we put that mindset in the red cell, right? In exercises. We don't say to an opposing force, 'Yes, okay. So, you're the red team for this one. You need to act like Gerasimov,' or whoever you picked that you want to pull out. We never exercised against the mind of Soleimani. Do you think that's one of our greatest failings?


    Eliot Cohen: I think it is a failing in that we're not preparing people to think that way. In a staff college you're obviously preparing people for an uncertain world but there are ways that you can do it by historical simulations and so forth. Again, the Israelis are quite interesting as a kind of Western laboratory. They do think about particular opponents, they think about Nasrallah in Lebanon. They certainly did think about Soleimani. They think about the particular leaders that they're dealing with in Gaza. Now, of course, that actually opens up another thing that's now part of the Western way of war which is going after individuals but that isn't just going to be the Western way of war, everybody is going to be targeting individuals. You know, that's a whole new dimension to war really, that putting a premium on taking out particular people.


    Peter Roberts: That all stems from this belief in Plan 1919, doesn't it? The Western personalisation of war is an extension of beheading the snake, it's, you know, cut the head off and everything else falls away and yet we've seen that that's not a very successful way of (TC 00:20:00) taking a war to an adversary in many circumstances.


    Eliot Cohen: No. I mean, it can feel very fulfilling. I mean, you know, the United States orchestrated the shoot down of Admiral Yamamoto, that didn't really shape the outcome of the Pacific War. Again, part of what we're seeing here too is that technology makes it possible to do these things. I think you can argue that as we think about the campaigns that we've experienced, particularly in Iraq, maybe more than Afghanistan, it is very easy to get fixated on a particular individual opponent and then to assume that once you got them then everything stops on the other side. That's not true. On the other hand it is absolutely the case that we're in a world where, as in the past, the nature of the opposing commander makes a big difference. You know, you might say that part of the Western way of war was to try to get past genius and the idea that, you know, it really all depends on who the general is. I mean, you know, take us back to Clausewitz who says, 'Well, you study genius not because you're going to become a genius but because you will understand something about the nature of war.' Well, maybe so.


    Peter Roberts: It's interesting, isn't it, because it feels more as warfare certainly being regarded as science not art, and in that way I just wanted to go back as a final point to ask you about this part that technology played and you raised it right at the start. It strikes me from your last comment that what you've said is what technology makes possible is not necessarily decisive, let alone war-ending and we're now allowing technology to shape our approach to war. Do you think that is helpful or not?


    Eliot Cohen: I think it's very hard to say whether or not it's helpful. You know, my first instinct is just to figure out how exactly is it shaping what we do and the way war is waged? For me that's the first order question before I can get at whether it's helpful. I'll give you just two things that I find very striking about what technology is doing right now. One is if you look at the Nagorno-Karabakh war where the Armenians are basically wiped out by the Azeris backed by Turkish drones, okay so there you have a middle power using a technology which was pioneered in the West of attack drones. Wow, was it extraordinarily effective against an industrial era military. We've seen somewhat similar things in Libya. What does that mean? I'm not quite sure but it certainly indicates that something is very, very different. We need to figure it out. The second thing and there's only been a bit about this that has come out about the Gaza war but I think it's also actually pretty important is the extent to which the Israelis were using AI to generate targets and then to act on them integrating many, many different sources of information in very compressed time periods. That would seem to indicate that what we may have is forms of warfare where the cycles of identifying targets and striking them are now getting much more compressed but also a lot more automated with all the perils of that.


    Again, I don't think one can say a priori whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, helpful or unhelpful from the point of view of the United States or the UK but I do think those are the phenomena that one really should be thinking about very hard in places like RUSI or, dare I say it, SAIS.


    Peter Roberts: Eliot, thank you so much. It's a real pleasure to talk to you today and you can find Eliot's Land Warfare Conference speech from a few years ago, we'll put a link to it on the RUSI webpage so you can find it. This show is produced by Peppi Väänänen and Kieron Yates and is sponsored by the good people at Raytheon UK. You can find out more about RUSI, our research and our thinking at RUSI.org/milsi. Thanks for listening.

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

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