Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 4  /  

Beyond Strategy as a Means to an End

Beyond Strategy as a Means to an End Beyond Strategy as a Means to an End
To cite this article: Elkus, Adam, “Beyond Strategy as a Means to an End”, Infinity Journal, Vol. 3, Issue No. 4, winter 2014, pages 11-15.

Strategy is often analyzed through the frame of ends-based rationality. Strategists examine a strategy and look to see if it correctly synchronizes ways of employing violence with the resources available to accomplish a given policy end. This method, while good as a simple heuristic, neglects important aspects of strategy-making that arise from the characteristics of strategic problems themselves. For strategic research to advance, strategic thinking must be approached from perspectives that examine the tractability and ambiguity of certain situations and the plausibility of canonical strategic ideas. While ends-based rationality is often identified with neo-Clausewitzian frameworks, the recent work of Colin Gray and others on the problems of the strategist show that neo-Clausewitzian strategy is far more than ends-based rationality. Different concepts and methods may bring out a richer picture of strategy and strategy-making.

A Means to an End?

Traditional definitions of military strategy provide very little guidance about the process of strategy-making. They typically conflate strategy formulation with strategic planning – the implementation of strategies that already exist. Instead, strategy – while many things – can also be considered a heuristic or hunch about a problem that creates or exploits a decisive asymmetry. This is why the notion of “asymmetric warfare” is so valueless – all strategy deals with the creation and exploitation of asymmetry. But one implication of this view is that one can have no idea of how a strategy will play out over time. A strategy is a heuristic about how to create and exploit asymmetry, not a complete plan.[i]

Why? The Trinity, after all, implies that war as a holistic entity is suspended between tendencies pulling in opposite directions. It is this characteristic that has led some to describe Clausewitzian thought as “nonlinear” and use mathematical theories of chaos and complexity to analyze the General Theory of War.[ii] If war from the perspective of the General Theory is a dynamic process, its dynamic character is often ill-served by the decidedly Jominian models of strategic reasoning taught in Western explications of strategy. Nowhere is the disjuncture between the holistic, terrifying, and chaotic vision of war and strategy Clausewitzian thinking implies and the reductionist understanding we have today more clear than in the idea of ends-based rationality.

The framework of ends, ways, and means – like Clausewitz’s injunction that war is “political intercourse, with the addition of violence” is useful when understood as both an abstract model of strategy and a certain model of strategic reasoning. In the abstract sense, every strategy can be analyzed based on whether its ways and means are properly integrated with ends. Of course, this abstractness can also be a double-edged sword. What ends, ways, and means represent in any one historical case is open to substantial interpretation. It is all too easy to say “General ___” had no strategy when he merely had one that didn’t work, and the relational character of strategy means that the enemy’s vote further complicates a purely endogenous study of one actor’s decision process.

When taken to an extreme, ends, ways, and means turns strategy into an engineering problem. It reduces strategy-making to a mathematical formula. As Antulio Echevarria argued, an ends-ways-means framework is often approached in an overly scientific manner:

“In all the online debates and blog sites concerning strategy, one theme is constant: we call strategy an art, but approach it as a science. We praise creative thinking, but assess our strategies with formulae: strategy = ends + ways + means (the ends we want to achieve + the ways or concepts + the available means). This formula is as recognizable to modern strategists as Einstein’s equation E=mc2 is to physicists. Each defines its respective field. Like all good math, good strategies consist of balanced equations. As our variables change, we merely rebalance our strategy: scale down the ends, increase the means, or introduce new ways. Like any good equation, our strategy remains valid so long as we keep one half equal to the other. This is a far cry from when military strategy meant the “art of the general” and, by extension, grand strategy meant the “art of the head of state.” If the art of strategy is truly lost, perhaps it is because – despite our rhetoric to the contrary – we really wanted it to be a science all along.”[iii]

Einstein’s famous equation was intended to explain the energy content of an object of interest. One cannot similarly explain the “strategy content” of a given strategy by adding its ends, ways, and means together. “Ends,” “ways” and “means” are far more slippery terms than mass in physics.

Finally, there is an open question as to whether ends, ways, and means is a useful analytical tool. Given that strategy is relational, a strategist can balance ends, ways, and means in a catastrophically bad fashion, and be saved by the fact that an opponent’s balancing is even worse. Given the dependence on enemy balancing as a parameter, viewing one’s own ends, ways, and means balancing as a function that outputs a good strategy becomes problematic. Is it really possible for us to cross the strategy bridge in the way that “balancing ends, ways, and means” suggests if we can horribly unbalance them and survive if the opponent is more incompetent?

In the mathematical areas of social science, the assumption of optimizing behavior in creating models is often useful for telling us how an agent should decide, if he or she had cognitively unrealistic and socially unrealistic decision-making qualities. Never mind bounded rationality, let’s just aim for what would have been the objectively best choice. Sometimes this can be useful. For example, the computer scientist E.W. Dijkstra famously retorted that the question of whether machines can think was “about as relevant as the question of whether [s]ubmarines can swim.”[iv] While the general public thinks about artificial intelligence research through the framework of the Turing test, many computer scientists are interested in producing computational agents that do things of interest in an optimal manner. A Facebook ad-placement algorithm has faculty for probabilistic prediction that humans do not, but it doesn’t matter as long as the user is supplied with ads that he or she finds agreeable.

Similarly, the ends-ways-means framework is how both individuals and institutions ought to make strategy. Arthur Lykke, the popularizer of the framework, was an Army War College instructor seeking to give military students a model of how strategy should be formulated, and cast the elements of the equation as questions to be asked rather than variables to be plugged in.[v] But given the Jominian culture of the American defense community, it was likely inevitable that a simple concept intended for the purpose of assisting practitioners would take on an overly “scientific” quality.

Second, there is an inherent tension in the way instruction of strategy is embedded in Anglo-American institutions. Militaries and governments need strategic thinkers capable of strategic planning and analysis. When Echevarria notes the “far cry” from traditional meanings of strategy and Hew Strachan talks about “strategy’s lost meaning.” they are reacting to the bureaucratization of strategy implied by the rise of powerful state civilian and military security bureaucracies and the genesis of the military-industrial complex.[vi] Similarly, the military and security communities – as the dominant communities with control over both the “ways” and “means” of organized violence that strategy seeks to direct – are the primary consumers of strategic writing.

Hence strategic studies, as left-leaning critics have often noted, is trapped within the institutional worldviews of the Western security community. Strategy is indelibly linked to Western geopolitical imperatives, and American hegemony in particular.[vii] These gravitational attractions shape the character of strategic research, and often devalue explanation of strategic dynamics in favor of research that trains Western security strategists or produces tools for increasing Western strategic efficiency. Left-wing critics of strategy were wrong in saying that strategic knowledge production perpetuates war and prevents peaceful solutions – strategic thinking as an intellectual industry is a recent invention, and war itself has hardly depended on salaried strategists for its perpetuation. Their singular bias against the moral defensibility of working for the state is also unsustainable. But they are correct that this focus has distorted understanding of strategy and strategy-making. One might even say that this distortion harms practitioners as well. It muddles their understanding of strategy, and when it comes time for them to understand why particular strategies have succeeded and failed, they are left with “just-so” stories revolving around virtuous or deficient strategists that either succeeded or failed in “balancing ends, ways, and means.” From such a perspective, they do not learn much about strategy beyond the ability to use motivated reasoning to force historical cases to validate their own internal narrative of how strategy ought to be done.

Expanding The Varieties of Strategic Experience

Ends, ways, and means stories are “just so” stories in part because they elide the complexity of strategic reasoning. Differing strategic problems vary in their tractability and ambiguity, and ends-based rationalism as a worldview poorly equips strategic thinkers to understand such variation.[viii] It is easy to understand why ends, ways, and means appeals to military strategic thinkers. Though classical strategists and those who study strategy in business may share some common areas of study, classical strategy differs in that policy can be achieved through organized violence. Violence literally creates new political realities and shelves old ones. While “disruptions” in markets may make old ways of doing business obsolete, the strategist’s capability to violently destroy blood and treasure, alter the dynamics of power, and break up political, cultural, and economic institutions is something that has no analogue in the business world.

However, violence is a blunt and unpredictable tool. Clausewitz’s “Trinity” implies that state reason must inevitably compete with violent passions and the chance outcomes of the battlefield to guide the course of warfare. Hence strategy has often – at least in the last 100 years – been seen as a way to control violence, as captured in heuristics like J.C. Wylie’s idea about achieving “some measure of control” over the adversary and Clausewitz’s own statements about using force to “disarm” the opponent, casting of war as duel.

Clausewitz and Wylie were both realistic about the difficulties of control and disarmament. But the pathology of the Jominian way such ideas have been processed is that it invokes a fantasy of rational control over the future merely because one has a framework that rationalizes the past. As Paparone has argued:

“The world is full of intractable situations and fraught with ambiguity. Some say that it has become increasingly so, but this has actually been the case all along and educators and practitioners of strategy just have the luxury of viewing the past through the lens of causal certainty, a lens that does not work when looking toward the future. Their retrospective sense of certainty epitomizes the fallacy of the proverbial Monday-morning quarterback. Only through the study of history do they know how things ended up. Knowing how the story ended, institutions can attribute causal relationships that reinforce beliefs that such ends can be rationally achieved through purposeful strategies toward the future. Indeed, this knowledge of the past reinforces an ideological bent toward ends-based rationality; hence, [it] provides the historic context for the objectification of an imagined future. The military profession has relied too much on the expectations envisioned by the limited philosophy of ends-based, rationalistic models of strategy. As the profession struggles with making sense of complex, ambiguous world events, the end game view has produced false expectations. The hope of ends-based rationalism – to create effective strategies, plans, and decisions to reach a desired future end state – has been confounding. Yet, our [military] institutions continue to teach this Weberian Zweckrationalität (sociologist Max Weber’s term, meaning “ends-rationality”) version of strategic thinking, assuming that practitioners can decide ahead of time how to employ resources in ways to achieve the ends we have in mind.”[ix]

Western institutions find ends-based reasoning seductive precisely because it allows them to envision a world of endless possibility. If we could only find the right way to optimize our ends, ways, and means, the thinking goes, we might succeed in achieving our aims. It is a subspecies of the thinking practiced by self-help booklets that cast the individual as the arbiter of his fate – wealth, fame, popularity, and attractive female companions can be yours as long as you exercise “good strategy.” This is something of a perversion of the intention for which many soldiers and civilians use strategy, and the conservatism about the use of force that many strategists hold to. Yet while many paradoxically rail against game-theory and math-loving “whiz kids” that believe in making strategy as a science, the institutional worldview of means-end reasoning is far more scientific and deterministic than even the most reductive of game theorists or social scientists.[x] This is what Echevarria refers to when he states that we always wanted (in our hearts) strategy to be a science.

Using ends-based rationality as a blunt tool, strategists approach the past not as an open-ended, contingent field amenable to multiple potential crossings of Colin S. Gray’s “strategy bridge,” but as a source of validation for the idea of using violence to control the world. When Richard Betts asks whether “strategy is an illusion,” he is most certainly not saying that strategy itself is an illusion. If it were, then both individual and organized human action would be impossible. And given that strategy also exists a way to describe the dynamics of evolution in the field of evolutionary game theory, strategy as an explanatory tool also transcends humanity itself. Rather, Betts is asking (and not particularly convincingly attempting to answer) the question of whether ends-based reasoning is an illusion.[xi]

Of course, it is not an illusion. Ends-based reasoning is useful not only as an abstract model of strategy, but also as a specific way of conducting strategic reasoning. However, it is one of several different modes of reasoning appropriate for strategic problems of varying tractability and ambiguity. Though strategy as a whole is a combination of many different problems that demand a combination of differing modes of reasoning, distinct problems exist that demand different skills from those of the strategist. Ends-based reasoning is only one of them. There is a gigantic literature in strategy, and for space reasons only a tiny (but relevant) fraction can be covered. Christopher Paparone’s “quad-based” concept of strategic reasoning summarizes many of the complexities of strategy.

His concept of varieties of strategic reasoning rooted in a contrast between tractable-objective problems, problems where known-knowns must be synthesized and alternatives excluded, problems where involving multiple interpretations of the problem exist, and problems of high ambiguity. Tractable-objective problems assume situations are technically available, with reasoning as a process of recognition and matching. Considered in isolation, force projection strategies involve having to build mathematical models of time and space that will allow the most efficient projection of violence. The problem is framed by the solution, which can be calculated utilizing tools involving optimization. When the problem is not mathematically tractable, decision makers have to decease the search space of potential solutions by excluding alternatives. The emphasis switches from programming to orchestration, akin to the way a conductor ensures a symphonic orchestra plays a melody by ensuring each instrument is combined in the proper manner. These are both “ends-based reasoning” in the most classic sense.[xii]

When problems become more ambiguous, it results in multiple interpretations of what to do about the problem. This is the realm of dialogue, negotiation, coalition-building, and other similar mechanisms. It is here where strategy as taught from the perspective of logistics (technical rationality) and the commander (the planning of campaigns) often breaks down. Eisenhower-like coalition managers, not the game theorist working on the defeat of U-Boat teams or the planners seeking to develop a military OPLAN, come into the picture. Tractability is an issue here, but it is experienced through the framework of whether or not it is possible to reach a consensus about ways and means. The last element of the quad is reflective reasoning, where the problem is large scale, complex, and resistant to institutional knowledge. Considerable uncertainty exists, institutional knowledge is poor, and relevant variables are so tightly coupled that thinking about cause-effect relationships is difficult. These problems require constant reflection about the framing of the strategic problem, and ought to be considered through the framework of “good enough” solutions rather than an “end state.”[xiii] The illusion of an “end” – while helpful for military planning and “home by Christmas” political rhetoric – belies the tendency of many social and political problems to persist over time.

A Future Research Agenda

It is one thing to diagnose a problem, and another to talk about how strategic researchers ought to go about dealing with it. As Paparone argues, a more pluralistic way of strategic reasoning implies different tools to study and teach strategy. While many exist – ranging from different methodologies of interpreting military history to innovations in training and education for complex situations, this essay will comment on several that the author – as a PhD student in Computational Social Science – is equipped to briefly explicate. These should be utilized alongside the proper qualitative study of military history and strategic theory in order to ensure that the analyst is kept properly grounded in the referent areas he or she seeks to study.

Strategic thought can be improved through a different methodological approach. In their book Complex Adaptive Systems: Computational Models of Social Life, John Miller and Scott Page argue that simulations of social situations like markets, alliance dynamics, and normative change offer two primary advantages. First, a model can serve as a “map” to understanding the topology of the social world we are trying to explore. While the map may not be the territory, it can serve the function of helping us understand the system of interest and its characteristics. Certainly in the military, maps and tabletop terrain environments may fit to scale but they also are spaces for examining (in an abstract sense) the nature of the terrain and the positions of the political, military, and economic factors of interest. Second, a model can serve as an “existence proof” of some idea of interest. They are experimental, and are not necessarily intended to simulate an idea as much as test its underlying plausibility.[xiv]

Because it is impossible for us (and also likely unethical) to recreate the violent past to scale, the two tools we have available are historical analysis and gaming. Historical analysis allows us to try to get in the shoes of a statesman and/or commander and see what options were available. But the problem of counterfactual reasoning inevitably comes up – we can only speculate about alternative possibilities, not experiment. Gaming has often been used in the military community to understand a given situation better by evaluating multiple possibilities as structured by underlying game “rules.” Modeling and simulation – though devoid of “player” interaction – also serves the same function. If we vary X parameter, how does the result change? Can we find a critical value to manipulate that will make the system shift into a qualitatively distinct new regime of behavior? These tools are both intended to give us a heuristic understanding of the underlying dynamics and range of possibilities inherent in a situation.

When it comes to strategy, some convergence of the participatory commercial and government/academic wargaming communities and the mathematical and computational modelers could be a boon for strategic thought. Mathematical and computational modelers who enjoy things like agent-based modeling, for example, have expertise about the nature of social interaction, causality, and simulation of social life that is valuable. But their simulations are essentially static – one can only adjust what is built into the simulation already. And the underlying code and mathematics behind the way it works is often opaque, making validation of complex models difficult. Finally, strategic thought can only succeed with buy-in from practitioners. Practitioners unfamiliar with the underlying mathematical or computational assumptions behind simulation models distrust them, and also find them overly reductionist. The interactive quality of gaming – and the way it allows the gamer to discover and learn underlying dynamics on their own – is a quality that simulation could learn from.

The idea of an “existence proof” is related but also distinct. We are inevitably attracted to overly simple and idealized ideas of how society works. The distinction between classical economic actors and the boundedly rational, cognitively limited, and learning agents in vogue in modern complexity modeling is famous. Second, many theories of human action often struggle with causality. It is easy to use overly simple statistical regressions or canned case studies to validate a theory of how something works, and much more difficult to demonstrate that a theory’s conclusions follow from its premises. Hence the modeler is really looking to avoid a situation in which the theorist claims (to borrow IJ editor William F. Owen’s longtime Small Wars Council tagline) “I don’t care if this works in practice. I want to see it work in theory!”[xv] Finding a way to marry theory and practice, however, has been difficult and a source of divides between the strategic thinker and the practitioner “in the arena.” Modeling for plausibility could be a way to ensure that a way of thinking about strategy is relevant to those besides the theorist.

When factors such as computational difficulty, complexity of interaction, or uncertainty are added in, strategic concepts can be evaluated for underlying plausibility.[xvi] In a world of learning, co-evolution, adaptation, bounded rationality, and interactive and distinctive social agents, does the theory still hold true? For example, the notion of an “evolutionary stable strategy” (ESS) in game theory is rooted in the framework of equilibrium analysis. But while the underlying mathematical description implies the existence of a Nash equilibrium, it does not state that every game has an ESS. This and other considerations impact the plausibility of finding a solution to an evolutionary problem without inordinate time and resources spent. What holds true for one evolutionary game may not for another.[xvii] Context is king in strategy, as implied in Clausewitz’s distinction between “real” and “ideal” war. Hence existence proofs can be used to evaluate the impact of contextual details on the structure of strategic problems and solutions as implied by theory – much in the same way that removing the possibility of an ESS for every game has implications for the complexity of finding a problem solution.

Lastly, one might also look to the cognitive sciences and artificial intelligence to begin to research, model, experiment on, and contrast differing ways of strategic reasoning. One big choice to make will be level of analysis – do we want to understand models of strategic reasoning from the perspective of an individual strategist? If so, we might turn to cognitive sciences to shed light on human biases and strategic decision – or look at an strategy-devising AI program like IBM’s Deep Blue chess computer playing a game like the “fog of war” chess variant Kriegspiel. But if we want to look at an organization at work making strategy, the same assumptions relevant for a person or an individual program will likely not hold as they are scaled to where “bureaucracy does its thing.” Hence different methods may be used to envision different organizational problems with strategic reasoning. Additionally, differing tools will fit differing ideas of strategic cognition. The mathematical formalisms of an AI may not capture the sensemaking aspect of strategy, and likewise cognitive architectures that can model sensemaking may not capture more structured strategic reasoning.

Classical strategy is in many ways fortunate. Neo-Clausewitzian thinking provides a solid backbone for the advancement of strategic thought and practice. The “general theory of war” is congruent with modern understandings of chaos and complexity in social life, and has outlasted more reductionist and deterministic ideas about war. However, the continuing attachment to a monolithic ends-based idea of strategic rationality stunts the growth of strategic thought. It is time to embrace ways of thinking about strategy that are more congruent with the implications of the Trinity, featuring a wider array of models of strategic reasoning.


[i] Andrew F. Krepinevich and Barry D. Watts, Regaining Strategic Competence, Washington: DC, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2009, 16-18. Also see Lukas Milevski, “Asymmetry is Strategy,” given at International Society for Military Science, Royal Danish Defence College, 13 November – 14 November 2013.
[ii] Alan D. Beyerchen, “Chance and Complexity in the Real World: Clausewitz on the Nonlinear Nature of War,” International Security, Winter 1992/1993, 59-90.
[iii] Antulio Echevarria III, “Is Strategy Really a Lost Art?” Strategic Studies Institute, 13 September 2013.
[iv] E.W. Dijkstra, “The Threats to Computing Science,” presented at ACM South Central Regional Conference, 16-18 November 1984. Accessible at
[v] H. Richard Yarger, “Towards a Theory of Strategy: Art Lykke and the Army War College Strategy Model,” available at
[vi] Hew Strachan, “Strategy’s Lost Meaning,” Survival, No. 3, Vol. 47, 33-54, 2005.
[vii] See Columbia Peoples, “Strategic Studies and its Critics,” in John Baylis, James J. Wirtz, and Colin S. Gray (eds), Strategy in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Strategic Studies, 2010, 354-370.
[viii] Christopher Paparone, “Beyond Ends-Based Rationality: A Quad-Coneptual View of Strategic Reasoning For Professional Military Education,” in Gabriel Marbella (ed), Teaching Strategy: Challenge and Response, Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, 2010, 309-310.
[ix] Paparone, ibid.
[x] Lionel Beehner, “Is War Too Important to Leave to Social Scientists?” Political Violence at a Glance, 13 Jan 2014.
[xi] Richard Betts, “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security, Vol. 25, Issue 2, 5-50.
[xii] Paparone, 310-322.
[xiii] Paparone, 322-330.
[xiv] See John Miller and Scott Page, Complex Adaptive Systems: Computational Models of Social Life, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
[xv] See
[xvi] Scott Page, “Uncertainty, Difficulty, and Complexity,” Journal of Theoretical Politics, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2008, 115-149.
[xvii] Artem Kaznatcheev, “Computational Complexity of Evolutionary Stable Strategies,” Theory, Evolution, and Games Group, 10 October 2013,