The Disease of Victory

by General André Beaufre

The American Armed Forces are suffering from the same disease which struck the French Army after 1918: the disease of victory. Moreover, the consciousness of belonging to the mightiest and the richest nation in the world has aggravated the disease. Today the American Armed Forces believe that they know better than everybody else what is to be done, and that no lessons can be drawn from others’ experience. They have no doubts about their doctrine and their own method of thought. (It seems to me that the Soviet Armed Forces suffer from the same disease, as far as I can judge from what I have seen of the Egyptian dispositions in the Sinai.)

Now, the present dominant trend of American thinking puts the emphasis on material superiority, as did the French Army after 1918, forgetting that the measurable factors are only a part — and often a minimal part — of the overall problem. This leads to a strategy which tends to be more logistical than psychological or even operational, and which presupposes an overwhelming superiority. Moreover, this trend was reinforced by the development of nuclear strategy, where it seemed at first that material factors were absolutely dominant. But in the later stages, as the theory of deterrence evolved, psychological factors proved decisive. In fact, nonmeasurable factors constitute the essential part of strategy, whereas measurable factors are dominant only in tactics. Tactics must be the servants of strategy and not the reverse. And strategy must include all the factors, the military ones, of course, but also the political, psychological, economic, and diplomatic ones. It must be a “total” strategy.

But even “total” strategy is not at the top of the scale. Strategy is only the art of achieving aims defined as national policy. Now, it has often seemed that because of the weight of the measurable strategic military factors, and perhaps also because of the strong personality of Mr. McNamara, American policy has been especially conditioned by considerations of merely military strategy, when military strategy is only a part of the indispensable “total” strategy, and when total strategy must not be more than one of the factors influencing the definition of a national policy. This sequence of thought is the only way toward achieving a sound international policy.

These considerations may seem excessively abstract and theoretical. I personally think that they are at the heart of present problems. Any kind of practical decision depends upon a correct appreciation of the general problem. No recommendation on a limited problem, strategic or technical, can be made in isolation, without being carefully related to an overall view. That is why I do not speak here about the F-111, the bomber force, the anti-ballistic missile question, the Vietnam War, or the weight of the military budget.

Everything depends upon a rethinking of American strategy, carried out with the greatest conceptual flexibility; American thought has passed through a first stage of what could be called “mechanization.” I think that a new stage is necessary, which should stem from much wider bases.