Blogs > Cliopatria > Is there such a thing as folk strategy?

Sep 21, 2011

Is there such a thing as folk strategy?

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

Folk physics (or naive physics -- there's also folk biology, folk psychology, and so on) is the term used in philosophy and psychology to describe the way we all intuitively understand the physical world to work. It's very often at odds with scientific physics (unsurprisingly or else there'd be no need for the latter). For example, we all know that in order for something to move, there has to be some force moving it. If you stop pushing a box across the floor, it will stop moving; if a car's engine stops working, the car will slow down and stop too. That's folk physics. Scientific physics disagrees: force causes acceleration, not velocity; in the absence of any other forces, once an object is set in motion it will keep moving forever. Of course it's that caveat which is responsible for the different conclusions of folk physics and scientific physics in this case: friction with the ground exerts a force on the box and the car and so robs them of their momentum. Folk physics works well enough for us in our everyday lives but would be disastrously misleading in, say, trying to dock a spacecraft to a space station.

I wonder if it's useful to apply this demarcation to military strategy? There have been attempts to formalise principles of strategy, of course, though trying to sciencise (yes, I just made that up) them by making them rigid formulae is not necessarily fruitful. Strategy has always been an art much more than a science, and as such is pretty intuitive itself. But certainly there can be (and probably usually is) a gap between what military leaders do and why they do it, and what everyone else, particularly civilians, understand them to be doing. This gap creates a space for folk strategy to exist.

Here's an example. The Luftwaffe left Glasgow and the Clydeside area alone for the first six months of the Blitz. At the end of that winter, a Mass-Observation team surveyed locals on whether they expected heavy air raids: 30% did, 28% did not, 42% had no opinion. That means that 58% of the population (there are no sample sizes or methodology given so who knows how accurate it is, but the exact numbers don't matter here) had formed some positive opinion about the intentions of the Luftwaffe's commanders concerning the Glasgow area. Based on what? Well, here's a list of the reasons given by the the 28% who thought Glasgow wouldn't be blitzed:

(i) air pockets over the Clyde generally;
(ii) mountainous area too dangerous for night flying;
(iii) a magnetic element in the mountains, which dislocates aircraft engines;
(iv) impossibility of locating the Clyde in a network of lochs and sea;
(v) adequacy of AA defences and depth of guns on the periphery;
(vi) distance inland or overland (very popular);
(vii) too far from German bases;
(viii) Germans not antagonistic to Scotland;
(ix) Germans believes revolution will develop here so long as bombs don't stir up the people (common upper and middle-class opinion).1

Some of these reasons are based on an understanding of aeronautics (a folk aeronautics, perhaps): that there are things called 'air pockets' which are dangerous to aeroplanes, for example. Or that magnetic mountains are similarly a hazard (perhaps inspired by death ray stories). The suggestion that the Clyde was too far away from German bases was true in a way -- it explains why Hull, Plymouth and Southampton received more big raids -- but it still involves implicit assumptions about the range of German bombers. More purely folk strategic thinking are the last two suggestion, particularly the very last one: that the Germans don't want to create any Blitz spirit on the Clyde which would just increase solidarity between the classes. That's a clear attempt to divine German strategy, though it probably says more about the mistrust Glasgow's upper and middle-class had for their notoriously red working classes.

None of these rationales can have been based on any objective knowledge of Luftwaffe strategy, which was after all not discussed publicly by Germany or by Britain (except in general terms). They must have been based on assumptions, guesses, rumours, bits of news and the odd factoid here and there (motors use magnets so maybe a magnetic field can throw them off?) They were indeed naive, and in the end wrong, as the Clydeside blitz on the nights of 13 and 14 March 1941 showed. But do they amount to a folk strategy? Maybe not, at least not in the same way as there is a folk physics. In that case we develop it through our normal experience, and usually don't even need to think about it: it's almost hardwired in. Military strategy is not something most of us have to try and interpret or second-guess. Even in wartime the chance to do this would be limited, and probably wouldn't amount to a consistent picture of how and why events were taking place. The Glaswegians who came up with plausible reasons for why they had not been bombed quite likely found equally plausible reasons after the event to explain why they had been. In any case the very diversity of views points to a lack of coherence. But then again, perhaps that is because, as I suggested earlier, military strategy itself is not too coherent. Humans aren't as consistent as nature.

I do like this idea; I'm just not sure there's any use for it!

Tom Harrisson, Living Through the Blitz (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 251. Emphasis in the original.

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