Continental strategists did, however, have one great advantage over the future Duke of Wellington: After all, grand strategy is much easier to formulate and implement when a nation’s foreign and domestic policies are vested in one person.
Wannabe strategists will tell you that formulating strategy boils down to linking strategic goals with ways and means. According to this train of thought, all that’s needed is for policymakers to come to an agreement, and marry goals with force structure and capabilities.
But in a democracy, this becomes far more difficult, if not impossible. Just look at how much difficulty we have balancing the Federal budget–an easily quantifiable goal which amounts to little more than ensuring that total expenditures do not exceed revenue.
Of course, no one doubts the essential democratic principle that civilian governments must have control of the military, that much is clear. But few can deny that governments–which ultimately formulate foreign policy and grand strategy–are subject to partisan brinkmanship special interest groups, and a voter base which is largely ill-informed, indifferent and irrational in the realm of foreign affairs.
Perhaps no one better understood this better than Lord Wellington, whose battles against bureaucracy during the Peninsular Campaign were just as vicious as those waged against the French. Indeed, Tampa Bay socialites, Wikileaks, and a certain Rolling Stone reporter pale in comparison to the domestic enemies Wellington racked up while fighting in Spain and Portugal during the early 19th Century.
Napoleon was a master propagandist, and had the good fortune of maintaining a firm grip on the press in Paris. But the Iron Duke didn’t enjoy such luxuries; throughout the campaign, Wellington was consistently dogged in the press when disgruntled military officers found a convenient outlet by airing overblown bellyaching to sympathetic tabloid reporters.
Referred to by Wellington as “croakers”, these officers held enormous sway in the British press, so hungry was the public for salacious war news. This craving was only further whetted by the fact that Wellington lacked the media savvy of a modern-day Petraeus. Wellington was so concerned about security leaks, he made little contact with the press in London.
But much to Wellington’s chagrin, he learned one of the cardinal lessons of modern public affairs: If you don’t give the media something to report on, they’ll either find, or concoct, a story of their own. Indeed, in 1810, the dearth of battlefield reporting led The Times to report on a battle which never even occurred in the first place. The British government responded by augmenting Wellington with a small military press corps–what we might consider a modern-day public affairs detachment. Under the watchful eye of Wellington’s adjutant, this detachment satiated The Times with tightly-controlled press releases.
Wellington’s concern for security was not unfounded. Today, elements within the US military (typically, in the intelligence and information technology communities) take a hard stance against military bloggers, mistakenly accusing milbloggers of security breaches. (In an era of Wikileaks and loud-mouthed Navy SEALs, the emphasis on bloggers is downright comical. But I guess the contractor who produces “Cyber Patrol” needs to justify his job somehow.)
The croakers were a far greater security risk than bloggers ever were; the Iron Duke was acutely aware that Napoleon’s spies regularly read the British papers, which often contained operationally sensitive details provided by vindictive officers.
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
–Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons, 1947
It should be noted that, despite the challenges of waging war in a democracy, Wellington was ultimately successful. For a military occasionally dogged by sex scandals and catty wives, the tribulations Wellington endured as a result of the Duke of York’s scandalous mistress should reinforce the point that, yes, war is hell, even on the home front.
Thanks to Aaron Ellis, Adam Elkus, et al for recommending Joshua Moon’s “Wellington’s Two-Front War“.