Outfoxing Beats Outgunning

What we can learn from one of the most brilliant deceptions of World War II.

On Sunday, the 70th anniversary of the end of the World War II battle for Sicily, the Sons of Italy's Garibaldi-Meucci Museum on Staten Island screened the terrific 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was. Clifton Webb starred in this true story, a retelling of one of the war's most famous deceptions. A briefcase seeded with sensitive papers was chained to the wrist of a dead man carefully selected from a British morgue, dressed as a Royal Marine, and taken by submarine and floated ashore on the coast of Spain where Nazi spies were known to have links to local officials. The papers included indications that the next Allied invasion -- after Operation Torch had helped liberate North Africa -- would be in the Balkans. A jovial reference to sardines in a letter from one senior leader to another led the Germans to believe that a landing on Sardinia was also possible.

What was the effect of Operation Mincemeat? The Nazis did gain access to the body and papers -- which included classified documents, but also fabricated personal correspondence and such -- and carefully studied the whole matter. The bottom-line result was that, during the two months after "Major Martin" washed ashore at Huelva, the Germans doubled their forces in the Balkans to 18 divisions -- eight of them in Greece, where there had been only one before. Sicily, the Allies's true target, a stepping-stone between Allied forces in Tunisia and the Italian mainland, was much less well defended, with only parts of two German divisions in place. There were a lot of Italian soldiers deployed to the island, but at this point in the war, after defeat in Africa had undermined morale, there was a real risk that many would embrace the invaders rather than shoot at them.

Thus the Allies opened Operation Husky on the night of July 9-10, 1943, landing on Sicily against only light opposition. The two field armies that conducted the invasion -- nearly 450,000 troops overall -- were led by top American (George Patton) and British (Bernard Montgomery) commanders. The Germans were caught flat-footed, and even after sending in a division of parachutists, they never had more than 70,000 or so troops on the island. Of the 200,000 Italian soldiers there, the majority soon surrendered. Yet the Germans fought hard -- as did the Italians who chose to stand with them -- and a campaign intended to last just two weeks was strung out for nearly six, despite overwhelming superiority in numbers and air and naval mastery.

And when it came time to retreat from the island after offering such staunch resistance, some 60,000 Germans and the 75,000 Italians still fighting on their side were ferried across the Strait of Messina with almost all their heavy equipment. The hard fighting in Sicily was truly a harbinger of difficulties to come over the next two years as Allied forces slowly slugged their way up the Italian peninsula. In the face of these results, military historian Martin Blumenson asked the most pertinent question about the campaign in his trenchant analysis, Sicily: Whose Victory? Hanson Baldwin, the long-time military correspondent for the New York Times, summed it up as "an Allied physical victory, a German moral victory." That is, the island was taken, but its defenders fought long and well, then retreated intact and ready for the next round.

Baldwin went on to charge that the Allies's whole conception of the operation was characterized by what he called "strategic aimlessness." This harsh judgment is well supported by an analysis of the movements of the forces in the field. The British 8th Army under Montgomery persisted in pushing slowly up the east coast of the island, often delayed for long periods by slender German forces holding excellent defensive positions. Patton's 7th Army was more mobile, chasing out to Palermo on the northwestern end of the island, then driving back east toward Messina. But all that accomplished was to push the small Axis forces hither and yon, finally to their embarkation point.

The only real strategic gain of the Sicilian campaign was that it knocked Italy out of the war, but this dividend was soon squandered by the invasion of the mainland that followed, the merits of which many strategists and historians have correctly questioned. Since Italy quit the war after Sicily was lost, why keep fighting in Italy? The mere threat of an Allied landing would have forced the Germans to keep a large occupying force there anyway, fatally weakening the Nazi defense of occupied France against invasion. As matters stood, there were still hard-fighting German troops in Italy while Germany was being overrun in 1945. The end for Hitler would have come sooner if the Allies had used some of the resources allocated to the Italian campaign to strike more directly at Germany.

So, in the end it seems that one of the most brilliant deceptions of World War II supported one of the least effective campaigns. How did this come to pass? For Martin Blumenson, the answer was simple: The Allies "made a power drive -- a frontal assault that was inexcusable in the rugged ground of Sicily." He went on to note "the supremacy of Allied air and naval forces could have been better used for massive outflanking operations to trap the Axis troops." That the Allies pursued a blunt-edged campaign instead foreshadowed not only the difficulties of the next two years of fighting, but also the general lack of imagination that has, from time to time ever since, plagued military leaders habituated to wielding "overwhelming force," the keywords of the doctrine that has come to be associated with Colin Powell. The truth is that the affinity for massive force was well established before he became a senior military leader -- and it persists even after he has exited the strategic stage. Indeed, there seems to be an odd but durable bond between the attractions of material strength and the tendency to take strategy for granted.

Perhaps remembering the Sicilian campaign as much for "the strategy that never was" as for The Man Who Never Was can help kick start a renewal of interest in thinking more deeply about outfoxing rather than simply overwhelming our opponents. As we look ahead to years of what will no doubt be declining defense budgets, it is high time to de-emphasize sheer material superiority in favor of truly innovative strategies.


National Security

Last War Standing

Why preemption is the only thing that can keep America safe.

The three tools of security strategy most heavily relied upon for the past 70 years -- deterrence, prevention, and preemption -- have never worked very well. Today they are on life support, sustained because of their appeal to civilian policymakers' and military strategists' habits of mind and institutional interests. There is no more pressing need today than to rethink these concepts, perhaps even to jettison long-accepted practices associated with them.

The Latin root of "deterrence" is the word for "to terrorize," and that was certainly how the first nuclear weapons were used: to kill hundreds of thousands of innocents at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and intimidate Japanese leaders into surrendering. The stated goal: preventing an even more costly, large-scale conventional invasion from becoming necessary. Whatever the true impact of these nuclear attacks, the idea of preventive action -- striking before threats could arise or dire consequences could unfold -- became attractive. Soon there were plans for mounting atomic attacks on the Soviet Union -- communist China. too, after Mao came to power.

But once the Russians obtained their own nuclear weapons, American ardor for preventive war cooled. As President Dwight Eisenhower put the matter in 1954, the Soviets could be "destroyed but not disarmed," and he gave up on preventive war in favor of a policy of deterrence. Still, it was deterrence based on the notion of engaging in "massive retaliation" -- that is, it had a large preventive flavor based on the belief that the threat to nuke enemy lands into radioactive dust for even minor acts of aggression would keep the peace. It didn't. Massive retaliation did little to stem the rising tide of insurgencies that have dominated the landscape of war over the past half-century. As Thomas Schelling summed this strategy up in his Arms and Influence, massive retaliation was "a doctrine in decline from its enunciation."

With the rise of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the rapid growth of arsenals of nuclear warheads, it soon became clear that the only real value in possessing these weapons lay in deterring their use. Quite the paradox, acquiring a capability so as never to use it. Still, given the "law of the instrument" (when one has a hammer, more and more things start looking like nails), strategists and policymakers expended huge effort trying to figure out how to wage nuclear war. A key element here was getting the drop on the enemy with preemptive strikes -- hitting first in anticipation of an imminent attack. The high point of this sort of thinking came in Jimmy Carter's Presidential Directive 59. But given the vast size of American and Russian arsenals, this was all nonsense. However successful a preemptive first strike might be, there would always remain enough -- on both sides -- to rubble-ize the enemy's country.

So, through the end of the Cold War, deterrence worked only when it came to keeping the nuclear peace; many conventional and irregular wars erupted throughout the world. The idea of waging preventive war faded like another darkening dream, abandoned early on. And the extended flirtation with preemption was ended decisively by Ronald Reagan who asserted that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." Reagan instead focused on improving classical defense, in the firm belief that the best path to security lay in rebuilding the conventional U.S. military -- the Special Operations Command arose on his watch, too -- in the wake of its post-Vietnam doldrums.

But all that was then. Since the turn of the millennium and the onset of the long conflict with al Qaeda, the hope has been that deterrence, prevention, and preemption might somehow prove more useful than ever before. With the principal enemy being a network rather than a nation, deterrence now focused on the basic principle of denial rather than punishment. A network has no clear homeland that can be threatened with nuclear or other forms of retaliation, so the focus must be on making it seem so hard to reach a target -- "denying" it to the enemy -- that attackers call off their operations or strike elsewhere. To some extent, American homeland defensive measures have achieved a bit of this kind of deterrence. But this has not deterred terrorism overall, just redirected it. Indeed, there is now so much more extremist violence today than there was a decade ago that it can be truly said that the war on terror has morphed into terror's war on the world. Recent closures of so many American embassies and consulates across a swath of Muslim countries only reinforce this point. Deterrence may be working, but only a little, and in a very limited way.

What of preventive war? Fifty years after Eisenhower rejected it, George W. Bush brought it back in his invasion of Iraq. While the Bush administration called it "preemptive war," this was a misnomer given the absence of any imminent threat. The war was really preventive, the idea being that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would keep him from developing nuclear weapons and would somehow create a less permissive environment for the future growth and sustenance of terrorist networks. There is little need to detail the costly failure of this preventive campaign, beyond noting that today the U.S. military is out of Iraq, al Qaeda is back, and that tortured land has become a hothouse environment for the growth of violent extremism.

With deterrence on life support, and preventive war fully discredited, preemption is the world's last, best hope for security. While it is a concept that proved poorly suited to strategies for the use of weapons of mass destruction, an era of "mass disruption" caused by small terrorist cells and hacker networks cries out for preemption. A raid on a terrorist training camp or safe house, a cyberstrike on a malicious, hacker-controlled robot network, these are the ways in which preemption can be used to reduce the threats that so imperil our world.

The beauty of the kind of preemptive operations that are possible today lies in the very low material costs of such a strategy. The challenge lies in the need for knowledge -- indeed, increasing knowledge over time -- to enable these sorts of strikes to be conducted. And the fact that preemption can only function on the basis of accurate insight should make the case for governments around the world to continue to amass and employ big data to search out the small cells that bedevil our era. One can only hope that the mass publics of the world will come to see the purpose, and the promise, of the information systems that support the only pillar of international security still standing.  

Reynaldo Ramon/US Air Force via Getty Images