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An Introduction to War and Strategy: Back to Basics

Strategic history is ever changing. At any one point around the world wars come to a close, while simultaneously others appear. These changes, however, can lead to the view that so much of – if not everything – happening today is new and the future can only be novel. With superpower ambitions rising in the East, tensions are increasing and driving the development of new military concepts to address perceived nascent threats. From anti-access to cyber, “new” concepts stir debate about where war and strategy fits in, or perhaps more accurately, where these concepts fit within war and strategy. Despite these current issues of the day driving the need for “the new”, essentially nothing new is happening – the fundamentals of war and strategy still apply. To demonstrate this, we have chosen 12 articles that, in their own way, shows the enduring nature of war and strategy even in current times, offering for our readers a quick ‘back to basics’ primer.

This edition begins with three IJ Briefs that provide short, easily digestible perspectives on what strategy is, the importance of clarity in terminology, and how the study of war and strategy is essential to students and practitioners in international relations. It continues with five select articles that cover everything from the place of war in the 21st Century to the importance of strategic theory in contemporary war. Following this basis in strategic theory we have provided four articles that are either unique to strategy or are misunderstood in a strategic context.

Colin S. Gray, in “Another Bloody Century”, argues “that there is sufficient continuity amid the change in strategic history for us to be confident that the 21st will be yet another bloody century — as usual.” With ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria, and the probability of new ones always on the verge of breaking out, Gray’s prediction is most likely correct. As humans perpetually caught up with our own experiences, we must be reminded that the logic of war is enduring across history.

William F. Owen’s “Seek and Destroy: the forgotten strategy for countering armed rebellion” purports, “that as insurgencies are violent armed rebellions, defeating them via military force is the measure from which all other success flows.” In a military environment wedded to a population-centric approach after a decade of experimentation, some may find Owen’s conclusions uncomfortable. However, from the Battle of the Saw to the Sri Lankan civil war, the history of war seemingly proves that Owen’s argument is largely accurate.

In another article by Colin S. Gray, “Strategy: Some notes for a user’s guide”, it is held that “Strategy is a ‘high concept’ that nearly everyone claims to value.” However briefly, Gray explores and explains, through short topics on “education in strategy” to “the dilemma of ignorance” to the unchanging nature and the ever-changing character of strategy, that the concept’s “nominal popularity typically is celebrated in its attempted application by a host of potentially disabling difficulties.”

In the article “Explaining Strategic Theory”, M.L.R. Smith and John Stone clarify what is often perceived as complex. In their words, “The word strategy is an over-used and much misunderstood term” and the authors attempt to “show how strategic theory should be conceived as an analytical method” and in doing so “demonstrate how strategic theory offers a mind-opening and intellectually liberating path that is able to clarify complexity.” Ultimately, Smith and Stone show that strategic theory is not as difficult as many perceive.

Adam Elkus has written on one of the most important and misunderstood ideas in war and strategy, “The Policy-Strategy Distinction”. By applying Clausewitz’s distinction between these two terms, Elkus “explains Clausewitz’s distinction between policy and strategy and argues for its signal importance in 21st century strategy.” For Elkus, “it’s not just semantics: knowledge and proper application of Clausewitz’s ideas about policy and strategy can help military analysts think better about today’s security problems, while a poor understanding of the policy-strategy distinction can produce conceptual confusion.” Is Elkus correct that Clausewitz’s distinction, written nearly 200 years ago, still applies? Events, both contemporary and current, suggest that it does.

Moving beyond strategic theory, we have provided four articles dedicated to clarifying concepts frequently misunderstood. Grand strategy is a concept under constant scrutiny, as it is often applied commonly and generally. In “The Mythology of Grand Strategy”, Lukas Milevski holds, “The common history of grand strategic thought is dominated by only a couple of names, and the interpretation of this history is dominated by assumptions about the trajectory the evolution of the concept has taken based upon misinterpretations of the past. These two factors blend together into a mythology which not only obscures most of the real history and development of grand strategic thought but also supports the current major interpretations of the concept, which are otherwise unquestioned and arguably unjustified. Ultimately, the way to a full and conscientious understanding of grand strategy necessarily lies through a serious study of the concept’s history.” This is sage advice. Like all elements of war, a deep analysis into history and strategic theory provide more clarity for today’s complex issues.

Like grand strategy, discourse on the very merits of strategic culture continues in earnest. Some thinkers hold strategic culture to be one of the most important topics in understanding war and strategy. However, strategy itself is ubiquitous. As Michael I. Handel noted in his seminal work on classical strategy, “the basic logic of strategy, like that of political behavior, is universal”. Particular strategies, however, will differ from culture to culture. Yet the latter begs the great strategicic question, “so what?” In the article “Strategic Culture: more problems than prospects”, Antulio J. Echevarria II writes, “Over the last thirty-five years, strategic culture has become a popular and influential concept.” However, and importantly, he argues, “Proponents of the concept have never truly reconciled its inherent tensions.”

The literature on so-called cyberwar and cyber strategy is voluminous, perhaps overly so. Debatably, many are putting too much emphasis on an area that might not be so complex, as regards war and strategy. One clear issue is that many writers on cyberwar and cyber strategy do not fully grasp the fundamentals of strategy, and ultimately, that all cyber power is governed by the one general theory of strategy. In his piece “‘Cyberwar’ is not coming”, David Betz persuasively argues that there is “much similarity between today’s talk of decisive ‘cyberwar’ and the overblown claims of the prophets of air power almost a hundred years ago.”

Lastly, Nathan K. Finney has penned one of the clearest articles on one of the more opaque concepts to enter the military lexicon: AirSea Battle. A key question is, why is ASB, the newest concept for the US military, not tied to an enemy or a desired policy? One answer seems to stem from the original document itself, which did not sufficiently explain the concept. Subsequent articles claim it is a strategy, while others suggest that ASB is an American response that is specific to the growing interests in the Asia-Pacific domain – that it is a military answer to dealing with China, should that become necessary. In “Air-Sea Battle as a Military Contribution to Strategy Development”, Finney incisively explains to readers that, “A large degree of the discussion on the United States’ focus on the Asia-Pacific has conflated Air-Sea Battle with strategy.” He argues that “Air-Sea battle and its associated concepts are in reality merely the military’s contribution to strategy development; a starting point in the negotiation.”

Each of these items has been selected to act as a primer for minds curious to understand war and strategy. It is our hope that in your pursuit for greater knowledge, clarity, and insights into both of these topics, you will find these past articles to be a potent source of assistance.


A.E. Stahl
Publisher, Infinity Journal
December 2013


Note: all articles in this special edition have been published in past issues of Infinity Journal. No aspect of the articles has been altered, including author biographies. In some instances, author biographies may have changed since the publication of the original articles.