War by Numbers

War by Numbers

Understanding Conventional Combat

Christopher A. Lawrence

Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2017, 390 pages

Book Review published on: December 29, 2017

In 1987, Trevor Dupuy wrote a superb book, Understanding War, which clearly did not receive the readership it merited. In its pages, Dupuy expertly wove military history, theory, and analytics into a volume that reflected on the wars of the past with an eye on future conflicts. Within his pages of graphs and statistics, he never neglected the human dimension of war. Those who read Dupuy’s volume greatly benefited from his analysis, perspective, and way of thinking.

For those not familiar with Dupuy and his valuable contributions to warfighting and its study, a brief overview follows. Dupuy retired as a colonel in the U.S. Army after serving in a variety of command and staff positions, including commanding an artillery battalion at twenty-seven in Burma during World War II. After retirement, Dupuy focused his work in two areas. First, he was a prolific writer of military history. His body of work included well over ninety books (many written with his father) and nearly one hundred articles. Second, he analyzed the battles of the past (developing computer models to capture this data) to make predictions about the future of warfare. His profound impact on warfighting cannot be understated.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Dupuy’s Understanding War is the chapter “The Timeless Verities of Combat.” In it, he provides a list (with extensive discussion) of thirteen fundamentals or aspects of warfare that he believes are unchanging because of their human component. Since I am not constrained by print limitations (the goodness of internet book reviews), I’ll share those below:

  1. Offensive action is essential to positive combat results.
  2. Defensive strength is greater than offensive strength.
  3. Defensive posture is necessary when successful offensive is impossible.
  4. Flank or rear attack is more likely to succeed than frontal attack.
  5. Initiative permits application of preponderant combat power.
  6. Defenders’ chances of success are directly proportional to fortification strength.
  7. An attacker willing to pay the price can always penetrate the strongest defenses.
  8. Successful defense requires depth and reserves.
  9. Superior combat power always wins.
  10. Surprise substantially enhances combat power.
  11. Firepower kills, disrupts, suppresses, and causes dispersion.
  12. Combat activities are always slower, less productive, and less efficient than anticipated.
  13. Combat is too complex to be described in a single, simple aphorism.

So, why the initial discussion on a book published thirty years ago? Well, because the ties between Dupuy’s book and Christopher Lawrence’s War by Numbers are significant. Let me begin by addressing Lawrence’s connections with Dupuy. Lawrence spent the initial years of his career (starting in 1987) working for Dupuy. It was during this period that Dupuy formed the nonprofit organization, The Dupuy Institute. The focus of the organization (which continues today) is to collect historical data, conduct analysis, and strive to understand warfare today and what it may look like in the future. Lawrence ultimately became the president and executive director of the institute, and he has served in this position for decades. He continues to lead the organization with the goals, objectives, and vision Dupuy originally set.

Lawrence discusses the relationship between the two books in his preface:

While this book is not an attempt to resurrect Understanding War, which is still in print, it does directly build on it, test it, and challenge it. Just as many scientists build their work on the work of their predecessors, this work is built on Dupuy’s work, which is built on the work of Clausewitz, Jomini, Fuller, and others. As such, I am not presenting an overarching theory of warfare; instead, this is a further testing and refinement of what is already known or has been discussed by other theorists.

Within the pages of War by Numbers, Lawrence has clearly built upon the work of Dupuy. He has crafted and organized a book that is highly reminiscent of Understanding War. However, there are several areas that are considerably different in content and objective. The first and most obvious parallel is the use of analytics throughout the book. As highlighted above, Dupuy spent years deeply engaged in this area. Lawrence possesses the same passion and has made tremendous use of the vast improvements in technology to capture the findings of past battles and engagements. The author discusses this impact early in his book. He states,

One of the primary analytical tools for doing this is a series of databases on combat called the DuWar databases. We relied on a database of 752 division-level engagements from 1904 to 1991 for much of our analysis. But, the DuWar databases are a suite of nine databases developed over the years to answer various analytical questions. These are the most extensive set of force-on-force combat databases we are aware of. They mostly consist of sets of engagements that match and compare opposing forces at the same level of combat.

As the title suggests, Lawrence utilizes the analytical data as the foundation for his book. The book is organized into chapters focused on a particular battle or set of battles, or on a various aspect of combat, much as Dupuy did in Understanding War. Lawrence has also included chapters relating to force ratios, attacker versus defender, human factors, situational awareness, dispersion, surprise, and casualties, among others. He focuses on combat from World War I to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within this scope, readers will find that much of the analytics are taken from World War II.

Within the majority of chapters, Lawrence combines a mixture of statistical data with an interpretation of the data and, in many cases, analysis of the data. It would be easy to inundate a reader with the sheer quantity of data presented. However, the author has done an excellent job of displaying the data in graphical form. His use of concise graphs and tables make it easy for a reader to digest. I found these visuals much easier to comprehend than in Understanding War.

In regards to the differences in the books, there are three areas that clearly delineate the two. First, and obviously tied to the thirty-year difference in publication dates, is the currency of the statistical data presented. Dupuy relies on data collected principally through the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. This is in contrast to Lawrence who, through advances in technology and the simple passage of time, addresses combat in Iraq and Afghanistan (although not at a significant degree).

The second difference is in the quantity of data displayed. Within Understanding War, Dupuy utilizes dozens of graphs, figures, and tables. Lawrence, on the other hand, makes use of literally hundreds of visuals. It is to Lawrence’s credit that this large amount of images does not overwhelm the reader.

The final difference is the amount of analysis on the data presented and the purpose of this data. Dupuy, who was (and continues to be) a greatly respected military theorist in his own right, provides readers with significant theory and analysis of the data collected. In his book, the data sets the conditions for Dupuy’s discussion. For Lawrence, I found his discussion set the conditions for the data presented. This in turn, enables the reader to then make their own conclusions and answer the “so what.” This is not to say that Lawrence does not articulate his own analysis. It is just a fact that Dupuy has few peers in this area. Clearly, each author has a different approach, but both approaches are incredibly effective and beneficial for the reader.

In reference to Dupuy’s theory and analysis, Lawrence does take advantage of this within his book. First, Lawrence opens many of the book’s chapters with a quote taken from the pages of Understanding War. Dupuy’s words are an excellent introduction to the chapter’s focus. Second, Lawrence has placed at the conclusion of his book three appendices of material written by Dupuy in Understanding War. These appendices, are the aforementioned “The Timeless Verities of Combat,” “Combat Advance Rate Verities,” and “Combat Attrition Verities.” They not only serve as a superb tribute to Dupuy but are also truly added value to the reader and complement Lawrence’s words nicely.

War by Numbers is a book that at first glance could easily intimidate a reader or quickly turn them off with the abundance of “numbers” within the text. This would be unfortunate, because Lawrence has crafted a book that is thought provoking, extremely engaging, and very pertinent to today’s study of warfighting. With War by Numbers, Lawrence has truly honored the legacy of Depuy. He has additionally added to his superb reputation as a historian and military analyst.

Book Review written by: Frederick A. Baillergeon, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas