Military & Aerospace

War: Science or Art?
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Issue Book Excerpt: War & Soldiering | Date : 22 Oct , 2017

Science is the field of knowledge, investigation, compilation. It explains nature’s phenomena and unveils its new vistas. Art is the province of creation, construction, action, “doing”. It is difficult to strictly separate the two in our daily transactions for knowledge prompts and feeds art and art uncovers science.

Man wants to know; having known, he wants to create; and having created he wants to know more; and so the chain continues. Creativity and quest are the two faces of human coin. But it is not always necessary that the etchings and weights on the two faces should be identical.

Some crave more for knowledge while some others specialise in creating, doing. One is always present in the other in good measure. Both are indispensable. But since nature has ordained that man should “live”, that is to “do”, to “act”, perhaps art then can be said to predominate.

It is said that Napoleon, that master military artist, though fond of chess, usually lost to his opponent while playing. But not his battles to his enemy! On the chessboard he dealt with wooden blocks, inanimate, across the monotonously uniform space of limited variety and extent. Neither the blocks nor the board pulsated to his spirit and wishes. On the battlefield he could rouse the weary ragtag to torrential fury to win thundering victories from hopeless situations. There was life, response, variety, scope and extent.

Military science springs from logic within definite cycles formed by obtainable tangibles like ground, distances, communications, numbers,  weapons,  vehicles etc. (resources, material), which by their action and interaction evolve a pattern. It is mathematics based on past experience, present capabilities and future possibilities, the whole culminating into a trend, a line of action. It derives its credibility and strength from the compilation of data, its analysis and synthesis and its applicability in an obtaining situation. It merely throws open a number of courses, each probable and workable, even indicating perhaps the most likely one after a lot of argument’ and counter argument. It erects the infrastructure of fighting and shows how to measure the tangibles and what their mixtures are capable of producing. Thus we have principles of war, knowledge of weaponry, terrain and climate and an insight into human military mind. It is like ploughed, manured, irrigated earth, capable of producing a wide variety of crops, but predictable all the way, simple, direct, methodical and with not much ingeniousness save for what guest into its preparation, but not what is called for its exploitation. It is the nuclear bomb, capable of wiping humanity off the earth. At lower level it is “staff work”.

Military art is the ingeniousness of using one’s own mathematics to upset the enemy’s thus bidding to stretch mathematics (science) to its elastic environs, often beyond the orbit of logic. If science produces a number of possibilities, even the most likely one, it is art which upsets the choice and changes priorities. It is mainly the product of imagination and courage. Not that science does not need these traits. But in science these traits produce a set of possibilities under given circumstances, whereas art uses these traits in employing the possibilities, flouting even normal logic and military mathematics, if need be to achieve favourable result in combat.

Imagination and courage, in their turn, draw strength from knowledge (science), but thereafter go beyond it in the fields of application, execution and exploitation, Imagination, with its cunning, courage, incentive and impetus, uses the solid mass of science the way it thinks is most profitable. In military parlance military art is the ability to be unpredictable in the enemy’s eye, the ability to gain and retain initiative, the ability to know the enemy’s mind and then boldly and resolutely exploit it. If we may call crawling science then stalking is art. If we see the artist in Jim Corbet then the vast majority of Machan Shikharis must remain merely scientists. Thus the knowledge of mi1itaIy science, its imaginative and courageous use, combined with boldness and resolution in exploiting it to be unpredictable and so upset enemy’s mathematics, goes to raise it to military art. At higher level it is “command” and “generalship”.

Gen Palit, in his “Essentials of Military Knowledge” classifies principles of war into fundamental axioms (maintenance of the aim and offensive action), qualitative values (surprise and cooperation: and we may add another one, morale) and quantitative principles (concentration of force, economy of effort, security and mobility; and we may add another one, administration). Axioms are the motive force. Quantitative principles provide the basic power structure, a set of courses of action for the motive force. Qualitative values create the atmosphere and set the tone for the motive force to choose the course and unleash its power. Quantitative principles are the science of war, whereas qualitative values are the art.

When we consider factors in problem – solving or of a military appreciation (eg. ground, relative strength, time and space) what we examine are the quantitative principles, the tangibles the mathematics (science) of war. But when we adopt a course after examination what we employ is the individual attitude, the grooming, the intangible; that is the art of war.

We find ample examples of the above combinations (of science and art) failing and succeeding. Let us keep fundamental axioms out or as common factor. Given a certain scientific level, the side with greater artistry has always won. Witness Gen O’ Connor’s campaign against the Italians in North Africa in the last World War, where he called the tune and the Italians twice as strong, danced. Similarly Manstein’s plan and Guderian’s Panzers scythed incisions in the French dispositions with such consummate artistry that the stronger French collapsed within weeks. The 1967 Arab – Israeli war is yet another instance. So are Kesserling’s campaign in Italy and Rommel’s retreat into Tunisia and his defiant final stand there against two Allied Armies. Mac-Arthurs Inchon landing was a master stroke. But there are also instances where predominant military science, material, has won. Examples are El Alamein, Russia’s Finnish campaign, Hiroshima-Nagasaki and a number of battles of the First World War after the Marne, where Von Kluck’s mighty German Army had to retrace.

Science of war, while eliminating chance, increases the possibility of victory but at a great cost. Art of war creates and feeds on chance, and exploits it to increase the chance of victory at minimum cost. War scientist is steady, indispensable, but costly. War artist is risky, indomitable, but economical. Together, so rare, they make a genius.

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Science and technology in the 20th century have taken giant strides. Proliferation of information is getting beyond individual capacity to sift, organise and exploit, unless assisted by modern machines. Military science therefore has expanded hundred-fold in terms of armaments, electronics, mobility, communications and surveillance. All these have to be studied, digested and mastered to requisite degrees if military force is to be created and employed successfully, economically and imaginatively in war.

Military science has naturally extended its concern and relevance to civilian sphere in a big way. But all this wherewithal and expertise continue to depend on generalship, military art, an exclusive preserve of professional soldiers. To him military science is inescapable, the basic foundation; but for military art he still has to study and draw strength and direction from history, culture, psychology and imagination.

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