Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 3  /  

Can Strategy be Taught?

Can Strategy be Taught? Can Strategy be Taught?
To cite this article: Gray, Colin S., “Can Strategy be Taught?”, Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, Winter 2019, pages 4-8.

Image: Lance Corporal Kevin C. Quihuis Jr. (USMC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Should the most accurate answer to the question in the title of this essay be found to be some variant of ‘no’, I must ask myself what I have been attempting to do professionally for the past fifty years. Alas, the question posed here is all too probing personally, and politically relevant to the world at large. It is somewhat irritating to need to mention, even discuss briefly, the meanings of strategy in common discourse. It is prudent to identify and hopefully clarify the meanings, presented as plural phenomena, before proceeding further here.

Strategy is a concept employed widely with two alternative, though apparently mutually compatible, meanings. The first simply is that supplied by the greatest theorist on the subject of war available to us, General Carl von Clausewitz. In his words:

‘Strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war. The strategist must therefore define his aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it; he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and within these, decide on the individual engagements.’[i]

The second meaning shifts focus from the purpose of war, requiring instead that the focus be placed upon the plans both for, as well as in, war. To summarize, strategy is a concept employed widely to refer either to a possibly contingent intention to use force, or to the consequences of such. Ironically perhaps, as Beatrice Heuser explains well in a major study, since the days of the Prussian general the political purpose of military forces has come to assume more weight in the hierarchy of theory, if not always of practice.[ii] Quite obviously, if legitimate military violence, force in other words, can be taught as strategy also it has to be legitimate to discuss it as tactics and operations. It may be significantly correct to suggest a thorough revision of the conventional austere conceptual hierarchy. We can conceive a systemic correction that ascends inclusively and holistically from relatively humble tactics, through possibly ambitious operations, to the rugged highlands of strategy, requiring a final climb to the ethereal heights of policy purpose in political choice.[iii]

Notwithstanding possibly prudent advice to revise the orthodox hierarchy of military thought and effort in a notably holistic fashion, the fact remains that orthodox wisdom continues to prefer what is essentially a pyramidal structure to strategic theory conceived as a hierarchy. What, for many, is a truly formidable challenge is the suggestion that much of the conventional wisdom of theory has the effect of misleading, instead of educating people. Since this essay is concerned particularly with education, it is necessary to be clear beyond doubt on the subject of just what it is necessary to teach as strategy. This is not to deny that many, indeed probably most, students will find themselves so entrapped by their immediate context that an attention span for strategy is unlikely to be available. A prime objective in this essay is an aspiration to persuade or remind military officers that what we have come to call strategy is not simply the ‘box’ at the top of the hierarchy chart above tactics and operations. Strategy is different in kind from all other, preceding, professional concerns in a soldier’s life. The preeminent challenge to the soldier as strategist is that he (or she) must do both soldiering and politics simultaneously. This will be different in his thought and behavior from, even distant from, what had worked so well for him (or her) for many years. The people chosen for the highest positions of command are unlikely to have understood fully just what four-star command may require. Indeed the burden of personal responsibility may prove debilitating.

Of course, strategic thought may well be a significant feature of particular staffs, military, civilian or both more or less combined. However, although genuinely strategic reasoning may not be in short supply, very few people are entrusted by their nation with truly strategic responsibility. There is excellent reason why strategy has to be understood as the choice and subsequent management of the consequences of action or inaction.[iv]

As Clausewitz sought persuasively to insist, the first problem that must be learnt is the understanding of the particular problem the polity believes it needs to solve.[v] We are unlikely to solve a problem that we do not understand adequately. It is more likely than not that the ‘problem’ in question will not have stably enduring features. Given the competitiveness of strategy, threats can become a menace, succeeded by hostile actions. It would be difficult to exaggerate the relative importance of the nature of the strategist’s particular problem. If, or as, that nature changes, so must the specific character of the strategist’s problems. Few conflicts pose effectively eternal features; change is constant. The beginning of wisdom for the strategist, as also for the rest of us, is self-knowledge. The strategist needs to acquire military self-knowledge not decorated with fantasies of hope. He ought not to be in doubt about the differences between rightful and wrongful conduct, but such moral assessment, heavily dependent upon cultural values as it must be, prudently can never be permitted to overrule consideration of the strategist’s prime concern. That top ranking must always be with the likely consequences of adversarial misbehavior. Indeed, concern with possible consequences is readily identifiable as key to the strategist’s tradecraft in all periods.

The more serious problems for the strategist are ever likely to be the human limitations that, to some degree and in some quantity, eternally trouble us all. No matter how many stars are awarded to an individual, he or she will have physical or mental limitations. Ideally, of course, a polity will manage to succeed in avoiding the kind of crisis that literally requires solution by a ‘savior general’ or politician.[vi]


Even fit and healthy athletes find it essential to follow a strict and tough regimen in training. The same reasoning applies to the fitness for purpose of the great organizations of state. Practice will not make perfect, but it is likely to improve performance. This can be a matter of high importance for the strategist to know. Inexperienced strategists have to appreciate that austere diagrammatic representations of the world of real action are always in need of substantial amendment. Both the human and the inanimate assets the strategist is told are his to command, or at least inspire and simply guide, will tend to rust and eventually suffer atrophy if not used. It would be agreeable to be able to claim with confidence that we learn from experience, especially our own. However, a difficulty in the military sphere, unique to the strategic level of assessment, is that that particular context often fails to manifest a host of problems that are usefully comparable. Possibly one just cannot train profitably to be a better strategist, or perhaps just to be one at all! This may be too severe a judgment to offer with respect to a candidate education in strategy. Nonetheless, it is necessary never to forget that there are few, if any, genuinely simple strategic problems. Any claimed to be such will likely be a complex issue predictably misunderstood by simple minds. It should be needless to say that of course there are some elementary reasoning problems, but simplicity of subject need not mean an ease of feasible solution.

The signature problem with all strategy, by definition even, lies in the requirement for the strategist to attempt to satisfy the world of politics as well as war. Some books, innocently perhaps, seek to hide, at least understate, the intimate relationship between political authority and military power. This close connection, interdependency even, is scarcely much in evidence in the tactical and operational realms of military action, but it leads, and may dominate, at the level of strategy.

It is quite common for soldiers, even senior ones, to feel distinctly uncomfortable about issues that really are ones of political choice. Of course there are and always will be exceptions, but it is important to understand just how deep can be the antipathy between the world of politics and the military.[vii] Universally, soldiers learn, and sometimes are taught formally, that they are not permitted a political role domestically. They may well play vital and possibly controversial parts internationally, but that political significance ought not to figure in soldiers’ behavior domestically. The bedrock of such thought are the principles that in our world today only internationally and legally recognized states are permitted to employ lethal violence, but even then the use of military force must be fully properly licensed by some domestic political process that should be recognizable as legitimate. Such force is politics in action, to put the subject properly in Clausewitzian terms. The military profession ought not to need to teach and be taught that there are many reasons why it should eschew a political role in domestic debates about public policy. The soldier may exercise his right, possibly even his duty, to bear arms, but he has no license to use lethal force, or the menace of such, on behalf of his domestic political preferences. Of course this is an aspiration for democratic procedures, notwithstanding the continuing existence of more authoritarian models of governance.

All too obviously, the licensed professional in skill at arms can be substantially ignorant in the ways of politics, insofar as they intrude upon the military aspirant to strategic expertise and possibly authority. Education in strategy requires recognition that the common coin of this extra-military world is really influence. The strategist needs to know that argument may be made literally by force of arms, in place of persuasion alone.

Although history is always somewhat strategic, it is also notably ever political.[viii] Both domestically and internationally, communities usually organize in the character of states jockeying for power and influence. This condition is permanent and is essential for the aspirant strategist to know. Notwithstanding occupational rhetoric about that strange, but distressingly elusive phenomenon, ‘world order’, he is taught, and possibly might learn, that international politics has long, indeed probably eternally, remained a truly ruthless arena.[ix] Ungentlemanly behavior is commonplace: indeed, expediently ruthless behavior is standard malpractice. The public references to some strange transnational beast called a Rules Based International Order are so bizarre as to be all but insulting in their obvious and manifest irony. Nonetheless, this familiar incantation continues to be uttered with due, if insincere, solemnity. However, the treacherous world of the opportunistic professional politician is a light year away from the professional cultural context of the soldier.

It is difficult to write this without the reality, or certainly the appearance, of moral outrage at the plenitude of more or less dishonest statements that constitute a noteworthy core of political discourse. In pursuit of greater leverage for higher relative influence, politicians everywhere and always are more or less economical with the truth. Indeed, after years of political activity at all levels of public responsibility, it is more likely than not that even the very notion of truth becomes substantially altered in meaning, from an empirical actuality to an expedient shape-shifter. This idea is advanced quite consciously as an exaggeration to make a point. To be unmistakably precise, despite the undoubted phenomenon of the truly ‘rogue’ character, the very senior soldier, in other words the only soldier whose official duty includes a necessity to think and behave strategically, is likely to be substantially dissimilar in thought and deed to the senior politician.

The fundamental question posed here concerns the awkward and sometimes ugly zone of action wherein politics and the military profession really do meet in order to conduct their nation’s business somewhat jointly. However, there is a particular quality of difficulty in the relationship between the soldier as strategist and the (usually civilian) politician. It should not be forgotten that the former is unlikely to have been granted many years of preparatory time for his third star, though particularly and for certain not for his fourth. The general as strategist must learn, if he does not know already, that in effect he has left the professional military world with the culture that he understands and has truly mastered, proven by his stellar military advancement. The deadly secret of strategy is that it cannot be taught, it can only be learnt by experience. As a person who believed for more than fifty years that he taught strategy well enough so that everyone, seemingly, was content, this negative judgment came as a considerable surprise, indeed revelation.

It is not easy to try to tell a military audience that a much favored subject, strategy, neither lends itself obligingly with a smile for the camera, nor has any particular existential reality beyond doubt. Difficult though this can be to attempt to teach, a student audience has to be told that strategic meaning is acquired or given because, and only because, of its context and consequences. Photographs, maps, models and plans do not serve to illustrate and highlight particular ‘strategic’ truths, because, alas, they cannot do so. What education needs to explain and emphasize is not that the concept of strategy has no meaning, but rather only that it does not have the existential meaning often ascribed to it. The mistake so easily made is the unthinking assumption that strategic qualities are existential. For example, if we are told by those who should know better, but may not, that Mt Fearsome is of high strategic importance, we are likely not to grasp quite why that claim is made. The sole sensible meaning is that nature or the enemy may well make our attempt at transit especially perilous. The height of the mountain and the weather are likely to be considerations relevant to possible consequences of military action on or close by the mountain. Nonetheless, the possibility of enemy action, in the geographic context of mountainous terrain, could have truly strategic consequences. This was Italy in 1942-43.[x] The total military situation in the Mediterranean area had strategic meaning for the campaign planned for the invasion of German held Europe, and for the fate of the mighty German adventure in the East. However, the genuinely momentous pace and scale of the campaigns in 1942-3 did not, as a result, render them strategic. What did have deep strategic meaning, though, were the profound unfolding consequences of the military campaigns of those years. Lest I should be accused of fixing my attention unduly upon military events of which I approve heartily, I must explain that strategic reasoning applies as much, if not more, to history’s losers as well as winners. The same strategic logic applies to all parties in a conflict.

Preeminently, the idea that needs to be taught about strategy is that the quality of strategic value is not physical, it is situational and may be moral or psychological at source. The arena for conflict must be physical, but the natural and human made geography is only the stage on and within which conflict is set. We must evade the danger of intellectual capture by the irrelevant physicality of things and places. What renders a plan strategic is its concern with the intended consequences of action, not the geography itself.

The view of strategy taken here, admittedly is a rather demanding one to put to a military readership, because one is advocating an approach that rewards the consequences of useful behavior, not so much the seeking of gain from particular behaviors. If I could identify and confidently label them with known and therefore predictable value, life would be far easier for the strategist. As things are today, and have always been, I must add, searches for strategy too often are akin to expert tiger hunts in land that has no tigers.

Fuel for Strategy: Tactics and Operations

If searches for strategy are disappointing as must be the case, it is important to ask basic questions about both the nature and the character of the subject. Should we hunt for strategy even though we have a growing suspicion that the strategy beast no longer lives here, or even if he ever did so? Should maps continue to be innocent of existential claims to identify objects and structures, natural or manmade, ironically we are left with an urgent apparent need to raise our game into the stratosphere of explicitly strategic reasoning. The teacher of strategy has a duty of translation that is often of monumental proportions. There are severe difficulties both of subject matter and with the prospective audience. The challenge of understanding for an audience of would-be strategists often is one born out of the ignorance all but imposed by professional years or decades mastering definitely non-strategic problems. Competent soldiers, particularly in wartime, have scant time or inclination to ruminate on matters strategic. Such matters, that tend almost by definition to pertain to topics of high importance, ought not to be developed either truly casually, or even as a consequence of divine revelation that is hard to test empirically in a prudent manner.

The concerns of soldiers at war are and need to be focused upon the twin mutually dependent topics of survival and effectiveness. The former may need to crowd the latter out of current attention, of course. Although the military profession can hardly help but do strategy, simply as a product of its existence, it has as great a necessity for wise strategy as it can be near impossible to obtain such. This is the rationale underlying the drafting of this essay, of course. The dominant relevant fact of military life, in times of both peace and especially war, is that strategy is not ‘done’ regularly below the four-star level of higher command. Although three-star (lt. general) strategizing is fairly common, at the superior four-star level explicitly strategic thought is a requirement of command. While trusted three-star generals can find themselves deciding and even implementing command responsibility at a very high level of operations for considerable periods of time, it is the fourth star that bears strategy in the job description.

The point of most importance here is the need to emphasize the difference between the most senior of generals and the rest of the armed forces. Hardly anyone ‘does’ strategy explicitly. This is not in any sense intended as criticism, for reasons that should be powerfully obvious. If we adhere to a Clausewitzian approach to force, as does this author emphatically, strategy by definition is neither political nor military, rather is it both. This is the way things are and strictly need to be in an orderly polity within a world that is run well enough. An unavoidable consequence of the logic here is the certainty that senior officers, not only those charged in the production of strategy, find themselves committed to the endeavor to explain the military approach to strategy to civilian politicians: these can vary across the entire range of knowledge on the local and the great issues in theatre, wherever the theatre happens to be. Personality types vary in the professional military, as they do in other professions. It is not wholly unknown for senior soldiers to be popular with, possibly trusted by, troops. Such generals can prove a political menace as a consequence of their probable facility with rough language and possibly extravagantly exciting deeds, neither of which might play well on today’s global social media. The once happy days when generals might report on their deeds and misdeeds only with a live temporal pause of months, is very long gone. The blessings of silence while John Jervis searches for the French fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean could hardly have a greater contrast than is the febrile context of today. Even a camel’s coughing on the Great Silk Road is likely to appear the same day on the BBC’s ‘Outside Source’ news report.

Strategy is difficult, if not impossible, to explain or even illustrate except by the aid of a map. However, difficulty in using maps for education in strategy lies in the fact that the world is divided not only, or even largely, on the basis of physical geography. Because there is distinctive historical narrative about nearly the whole Earth, and because we humans have managed to contest the entirety of the planet; there can be no evasion by soldiers of the physical geography of inter-state quarrels. Wherever soldiers look they cannot evade politics. As Clausewitz noted, strategy and policy fuse together, one cannot and should not even conceive of the former without the latter.[xi] This is reality, it is neither a matter of discretion, nor is it contemporary. Rather is it an existential reality for the human condition.[xii] However, that fact, all too true though it certainly is, poses the most serious of questions for military power. Do we mean to insist that all soldiers should obey orders, until – that is – they achieve four-star rank, when they are almost literally obliged to inform political authority about the military advisability or otherwise of its possible political intentions?

Politics and War

Recognition of the hybrid nature of strategy is key to understanding the deepest and most intractable of reasons why it is so mysterious and difficult. Once we leave the straightforward worlds of politician on one hand and soldier on the other, the relevant context for strategic effects is, we learn, neither that of war nor of politics. Rather is the pertinent context the confused and confusing realm that is made of both politics and war. Of course the latter is only intelligible and morally tolerable with careful reference to the former. Unavoidably politics behaves as licensee for all that is done and probably caused in its name.

The logical structure of strategy is not complex, but the complications do not show on the basic introductory slides. Unsurprisingly, the devil is in the details. It is far from sufficient simply to explain the essential components of strategy, which is to say Ends, Ways, and Means, together with most favored assumptions. Full grasp of this structure should be helpful, but cannot inform usefully as to what a strategist needs to know. The inexperienced aspirant strategist needs to understand, not merely learn, that his undoubted and widely praised skill at the tactical and operational levels of war are not really very relevant to the conduct of strategy. It is quite possible he will never learn how to be a competent, let alone superior, strategist. What he will need to learn is how to threaten and use military force to encourage, and if need be impose, a net favorable trend in the unfolding course of events. He has to understand that all strategic, which is to say consequential, advantage can flow solely from a stream of happenings that must be comprehended as inherently tactical, though probably do operational when considered in compound temporal context.

The general theory of strategy reminds strategists willing to listen that theirs is a duty often impacted critically by the challenge of time, really meaning future events. The quality of strategy typically is significantly time dependent. Strategy that may well succeed, might age rapidly should the domestic public despair of success, or should the enemy anticipate successfully what dire consequences for his misdeeds we plan for him.

I am arguing that would-be strategists need to understand that although the fundamental logical architecture of their subject does not change, critically important details alter much of the time. As significant, perhaps, the strategist has to be aware that his domestic and international contexts are ever-changing. The most important change in conditions for the strategist can be a major shift in national policy – the Ends that the basic logic of strategy is unduly apt to pass over with little comment. There is good reason for the strategist to decline to linger over the category of Policy (Political) Ends. After all, it is important for the strategist always to remember that the profession of arms should play no role in domestic politics. This is not quite a total prohibition against military action on the domestic scene, because all countries regard their armed forces as constituting ultimate insurance against internal disorder.

The integrity of strategy, hence inevitably also the integrity of the strategist, is challenged fundamentally when public political choice poses problems that have no realistically feasible solution. Recent history illustrates very clearly the argument just advanced here. No matter how worthy the political cause may be, how serious the nation or alliance interest, the theory of strategy may offer no very plausible prospect of success. Even competent strategists well enough supported politically by domestic opinion can err fatally.[xiii] It is well not to forget that strategy is competitive in nature. This means that historical narrative cannot be owned and controlled by one party only to a conflict. Writing as an American I cannot responsibly refrain from noticing that the United States unmistakably has lost in every war it has waged since Korea (1950-53). Not to mince words, the United States suffered strategic failure and therefore defeat in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, this sad tale is choosing to ignore the American humiliation and defeat in Somalia (1993).

Question and Answer

It has been argued in this essay that while tactics and operations can both be taught in a meaningful sense, largely because both categories of military behavior have empirically well attested histories, even when asked to exploit changing tools and methods. In short, both categories of behavior can be addressed usefully by confident military doctrine. Tactical and operational excellence in means and methods should be rewarded with military success at those levels of engagement. It is starkly obvious, however, that there cannot be doctrine sufficiently suitable in specificity to fit occasions of necessity in strategy. Ironically, perhaps, strategic doctrine, popularly so called, has to address all but every development deemed likely to have important consequences in the future. In practice, of course, we do not concern or alarm ourselves with regard to all that is changing, but the strategist does have a license to anticipate and interpret how and as the world is changing. Although official publications in many countries do not recognize the fact, there is a fatal opposition in the grand sounding high concept, ‘strategic doctrine’. Actually, noun and adjective are in unrecognized opposition to each other. If this essay accomplishes nothing else, at least let it bury the nonsensical concept of strategic doctrine. There is, and can be no such conceptual beast. Why? Because the very idea of strategy encourages a flexibility that is anathema to the meaning of doctrine. A worthy hunt after best current practice is what doctrine is about, resting usually on an empirically well founded belief. Strategy, in contrast, needs to be able to address novel and sometimes quite unprecedented situations. It does not and cannot rest comfortably on established truths concerning best current practice.

Strategy engages too many concerns to be taught. The future may well prove to be violently disorderly and thus seemingly determined to resist confident anticipation. The only strategy that sensibly should be taught is one both hugely respectful of the literally timeless verities of Ends, Ways and Means, while retaining a commanding respect for the virtues of flexibility and adaptability in readiness for change. Strategic challenges are not simply operational problems of a greater cause. They comprise irregular problems that will not be met well enough by people who are equipped by nature only with minds that think in and of regular wars. The current state of play in education about and in strategy may be gauged helpfully from a recent article by Jean-Louis Samaan.[xiv] Because strategic problems are virtually by definition irregular, it is not obvious that the Army understands what it needs for genuinely strategic command appointments.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret trans (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p.177.
[ii] Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), Chapter 1.
[iii] General Sir Rupert Smith advocates an approach to the subject that requires tactical, operational, and strategic (including political) thought and behaviour simultaneously. This holistic approach is the product of his varied expertise of high command in the Balkans in the 1990s.
[iv] The importance of consequences is emphasized in Colin S. Gray, Theory of Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 61-4.
[v] Clausewitz, On War, p.81.
[vi] See Victor Davis Hanson, The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost – from Ancient Greece to Iraq (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).
[vii] The modern classic explanation of this position was stated and explained incomparably in Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations (New York: Vintage Books, 1964).
[viii] The claim is illustrated and explained in Colin S. Gray, ‘Strategic History’, Infinity Journal, Vol. 6, Issue 2 (Summer 2018), pp. 4-8.
[ix] See Henry Kissinger, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (London: Allen Lane, 2014).
[x] For appreciation of the military and arguably strategic significance of mountainous terrain see the campaign history by Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Vol. 2 of ‘The Liberation Trilogy’ (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).
[xi] The argument in ‘Strategic History’, Infinity Journal, op.cit, is directly relevant here.
[xii] Clausewitz, On War, p.607: ‘In short, at the highest level the art of war turns into policy – but a policy conducted by fighting battles rather than by sending diplomatic notes’.
[xiii] The American adventure in Vietnam is a classic example of fundamental strategic error by a very great power. For an outstandingly insightful consideration of the American effort, see Gregory A. Daddis, Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
[xiv] Jean-Louis Samaan, ‘Comparative Strategy in Professional Military Education’, Parameters, Vol.48, No.2 (Summer 2018), pp.27-37.