J.R.R. Tolkien's Teachings on 'Culminating Points'
Maybe it’s encroaching senility, but I find my canon of strategic classics enfolds more and more fiction and literature every year. Move over, Clausewitz and Mahan. Homer, Shakespeare and Conrad want to bend your ear! Even J. R. R. Tolkien has worthwhile things to say about the topsy-turvy demesne of diplomacy and combat. Sure, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is about dwarves, orcs and magic rings. But there’s far more to his Middle Earth chronicle than that.
For me, the chief takeaway from Tolkien has always been: despair not. Sound moral counsel. Recently, though, a colleague circulated an amusing but telling web comic that’s floating around on the internet. It purports to show how Sauron, the archenemy of all that’s good and noble, flouted what Carl von Clausewitz calls the highest and simplest law of strategy. To wit: make yourself strong in general, but especially at the decisive place on the map at the decisive time.
That place is where battles are lost and won. And striking “blow after blow” against the center of an enemy’s strength—pounding away repeatedly until he says uncle or collapses—represents the key to victory.
That was doubly true during the battle for Middle Earth. The alliance of elves, dwarves and men arrayed against Mordor had no incentive to parley. Why would they? The Dark Lord offered nothing except slavery and death. If there’s zero chance your enemy will capitulate, you’d better crush his forces, put your boot on his neck and impose what terms you will. Otherwise you may find yourself in a quagmire—or even suffer defeat.
Sauron got the first part of Clausewitz’s maxim right. The forces of evil were numerous and muscle-bound, though not always terribly bright. They were strong in general. He botched the second in epic fashion. As the graphic shows, he scattered army detachments hither and yon on various missions rather than mass his horde to strike a fatal blow against the Western allies. By fragmenting his army, he granted the West a fighting chance in each engagement.
Clausewitz sets a high though ill-defined bar for any decision to divide your forces. He demands that you set priorities and stick to them rather than succumb to strategic ADHD and try to do it all. The force that tries to accomplish everything, everywhere, ends up accomplishing little, anywhere. Accordingly, Clausewitz urges generals to forego secondary theaters or operations unless the prospects for such efforts are “exceptionally rewarding” and don’t endanger the main effort.
The upshot: To avoid losing it all, don’t detach forces from the main theater unless you command “decisive superiority” there, where the outcome matters most. Secondary theaters are, after all, secondary. Reward, risk, resources – that’s Clausewitz’s formula for thinking through thorny questions.
So the Dark Lord mishandled the basic principle of concentration and dispersal. And he did so while empowering foemen to Mordor’s detriment. Clausewitz prophesies that an invader will hold the advantage at the outset of an invasion. The aggressor gets the jump on the defender. He takes territory. The offense, then, does confer certain psychological and physical advantages. The invader’s margin of supremacy widens for some time after crossing the enemy’s border.
Yet Clausewitz also predicts that the attacker’s margin of supremacy will soon narrow. Defense, he says, constitutes the stronger form of warfare. The attacker stretches his supply lines while driving deeper onto enemy soil. Partisans may assail his logistical lifelines, even as the defenders’ army retires closer to its own bases—easing their tactical and logistical dilemmas. And so forth. It’s simply hard to defeat stubborn foes on their home ground over great distances.
Because of such impediments, indeed, the offensive may reach a “culminating point of the attack” beyond which the defender holds the upper hand. At that point, the attacker’s in serious jeopardy. Finding yourself the weaker antagonist deep within hostile territory represents an uncomfortable predicament.
How can the invader—how can Sauron’s host—sustain its martial edge long enough to win? By doing simple things—although Clausewitz laments that “the simplest thing is difficult” amid the din of combat. The attacker can raise and deploy reinforcements, or recruit allies with strong forces to chip in. He can break existing enemy alliances, or forestall new ones—depriving the adversary of outside help. He can maneuver, or deploy innovative tactics to box in and stymie the defender.
Sauron and his orc masters did none of this. By putting the West on “death ground”—Sun Tzu’s phrase for putting someone in a life-or-death position—the Dark Lord guaranteed that the allies would fight to the finish. They had no other option. His forces’ assault on the fortress at Helm’s Deep—an attempted genocide—built an alliance rather than demolishing one. It proved that Mordor had not just the malice but the power to overcome a Western kingdom. A common, mortal threat unites the threatened against it.
If Sauron was guilty of self-defeating behavior, why was he guilty of it? He accepted few interviews after the hobbits flung the One Ring into the Cracks of Doom—and brought about Mordor’s downfall—but we can speculate. The Dark Lord was like the scorpion in the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog: he did what his nature made him do. He put rival realms on death ground, forced hostile alliances into being, and let his enemies protract the war until they could win because ... he was what he was.
That’s what happens when you’re “a sleepless malice” stirring in the east. Hubris must’ve also been at work. Like the Napoleons or Hitlers of the world, that is, Sauron believed his own hype. Sovereigns and commanders in thrall to overweening pride seldom heed strategic wisdom. The Dark Lord needed counsel. He was all-seeing. But the Eye of Sauron could gaze along only one, narrow axis at a time. It missed important sights—like hobbits traipsing through the badlands to Mount Doom.
And lastly, groupthink must’ve been rampant among leadership circles in Mordor. Can you imagine being one of Sauron’s lieutenants, telling the Big Guy he’s about to do something unwise? Tyrants interpret contrary words as disloyalty—and take severe countermeasures. That’s a prospect that chills speech—including speech that could be sage counsel. Prudent strategy suffers when you squash ideas at odds with your own.
Wisdom from Tolkien: Acknowledge your limits, set and abide by priorities and give your opponents an out. Don’t be a scorpion.