The human devastation of war and its impact on national fortunes makes it a serious endeavor worthy of significant consideration. Yet, too often, officers mistakenly believe they will begin thinking strategically once they are in a role that requires it. Unfortunately, for most people, strategic thinking requires years of practice and application to hone and refine. Thankfully, many theorists have sought to identify principles or concepts that can help guide leaders as they prepare to direct wartime efforts. Junior officers wishing to begin sharpening their strategic thinking before they are thrust into a position that demands it would be well-served by devoting their efforts towards understanding those tenets that endure throughout time and serve as core elements of military strategy. They include remaining focused on the political ends and the desired peace, concentrating forces and effort, and economizing force.
Of course, understanding is only the beginning. Seasoned strategists well-versed in these principles and with ample practice in attempting to apply them in war have found reality to be far more messy and complex than most theorists suggest. The simple fact is that war is unwieldy. Even if leaders start with sound strategic thinking grounded in enduring principles, there are still numerous reasons why effectively carrying out strategy is so challenging in a wartime environment, including many that are entirely out of leaders’ control. Nevertheless, there are also recurring pitfalls that commonly plague strategists in marrying theory to practice—namely overreaching, confusing means for ends, and assuming a quick victory. Consequently, junior officers would do well to not only devote themselves to understanding the core principles but also the common mental traps and means for countering their pull. As such, this paper will provide an overview of both the principles and pitfalls for budding strategists who desire to grow in their thinking about the art of directing war. It seeks, if only slightly, to help light their way, ease their progress, and train their judgment for efforts that await them in the future.
Principle #1: Focusing on the political ends and desired peace
As a political instrument, war is meant to pursue political ends. Consequently, those ends must be at the center of a strategist’s mind throughout the development of the military strategy. Carl von Clausewitz noted, “If we keep in mind that war springs from some political purpose, it is natural that the prime cause of its existence will remain the supreme consideration in conducting it.”[i] While it seems obvious that a strategist should focus on the ends that the war means to attain, it is often easier said than done. For one, it can be hard to discern the political leader’s aims for a war. The Afghanistan War, particularly after the initial operations to remove the Taliban from power, serves as a recent example of multiple administrations struggling to clearly articulate their desired political ends. As the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted in their 2021 lessons learned report, “the ends were murky and grew in number and complexity.”[ii] An ongoing dialogue with political leadership is often required to ensure both sides are synchronized in their understanding of the goals and to reconcile what is desirable with what is possible.[iii] Moreover, the nature of war is such that its demands easily come to dominate strategists’ time and thinking. Soon the very weight of maintaining a fighting force, planning objectives, discerning adversary intentions, responding to enemy movements, and coordinating actions across domains can overwhelm the attention of strategists so that the overarching objectives are lost in the noise and inertia. As Clausewitz highlighted, “Once it has been determined, from the political conditions, what a war is meant to achieve and what it can achieve, it is easy to chart the course. But great strength of character, as well as great lucidity and firmness of mind, is required in order to follow through steadily, to carry out the plan, and not to be thrown off course by thousands of diversions.”[iv]
Having a clearly articulated definition of victory and a vision for the subsequent peace is the vital first step towards ensuring that war is directed toward its political ends. It serves several purposes. First, it helps strategists to determine the nature of the conflict, whether it should tend toward an absolute war or one with more limited aims. In this, strategists need to consider adversary intentions as well, for a nation seeking limited aims may be forced to fight a more total war due to adversary ambitions. Second, defining victory will inherently limit options and help determine the approach of the strategy. If victory is a better peace, it would be counterproductive to fight to the point of national exhaustion.[v] However, if victory is the destruction of a militant national regime like the Nazis, exhaustion may be an acceptable price for unconditional surrender. Finally, tangibly defining victory and the desired peace forces leadership to avoid the vagaries that typically guide wartime efforts. As Fred Charles Iklé notes, “Many wars in this century have been started with only the most nebulous expectations regarding the outcome, on the strength of plans that paid little, if any, attention to the ending.”[vi] Again, it is easier said than done, and rarely will officers have full control over the strategic decision-making process. Nevertheless, in striving to clearly articulate a vision for victory and the subsequent peace, and then keeping that vision at the forefront of all wartime considerations, strategists have a better chance of directing the war towards fruitful ends.
Principle #2: Concentrate force and effort
With the political ends and victory as the foundation, the next enduring principle is to focus all force—moral, physical, and material—on the objectives most likely to produce those ends. Strategists must identify the key objectives that will lead to their vision of victory and then subordinate all other activities to those main actions. In short, a military must act with utmost concentration.[vii] Concentration can manifest differently at the various levels of war and across the domains of war. At the strategic level, it can consist of focusing national wartime efforts on the few critical actions that can achieve the preferred strategic ends, while at the tactical level, it can be amassing firepower on a specific point in the adversary’s lines. Nevertheless, the heart of concentration is to focus a military’s effort and force to create advantages and optimize chances for success.
In its logical ideal, all force would be directed at a single point to produce maximum effect. The more force is dispersed, the less its impacts, and the lower the chances it will achieve its ends. Thus, the goal is to focus efforts on the tasks that will most likely achieve the ends in order to ensure the action has maximum effect towards victory. As J. C. Slessor put it, the whole art is to “select the correct objective at the time, namely that on which attack is likely to be decisive, or to contribute most effectively to an ultimate decision; and then to concentrate against it the maximum possible force…”[viii] However, concentration does not imply that strategists must throw all force directly at the primary objective—the impact can be amplified through creative employment. As B. H. Liddell Hart noted, commanders can magnify the effects of concentration when they direct it towards adversary weak points.[ix] At times, it is a matter of identifying an objective’s weak points and directing your force at them; but at other times, a thoughtful approach can also manufacture weaknesses in adversary positions. In using purposeful dispersion, deception, and lines of operation that include alternative objectives, a strategist can force the adversary to disperse their strength. Doing so creates relative weaknesses that concentration can subsequently exploit.[x] In seeking to heighten the impact of actions and force, strategists should not only concentrate efforts on the elements most likely to prove decisive but also think creatively about how the approach can magnify the effect.
Principle #3: Economize force
If concentration serves to focus force on the critical objectives to maximize impact, the economy of force demands that a military not use any more force than necessary to be successful. War is a costly endeavor in both blood and treasure. Thus, it is axiomatic that an ideal war would use the minimum force necessary to achieve its political ends. Theorists capture the concept in a variety of ways. Clausewitz noted that the measure of genius is whether he can “manage a campaign exactly to suit his objectives and resources, doing neither too much nor too little.”[xi] Liddell Hart stated that flawless strategy would consist of perfect coordination between ends and means.[xii] Sun Tzu captured the absolute ideal when he said that winning every battle is not the pinnacle of excellence, but rather subjugating the enemy army without fighting.[xiii] All of these touch on the self-evident truth that leaders should strive to achieve their ends using the least amount of force possible. Of course, it is near impossible to achieve in reality—the fog and friction of war, the limits of leader foresight, and the firmness of mind needed to carry out a plan despite endless diversions all conspire against perfect economy. Nonetheless, it is the ideal that strategists should seek.
There is an additional reason to economize force besides the fact that it increases wartime expenditures and reduces strength for the subsequent peace: excess force can also increase adversary resistance and make war termination more difficult. In this, war can become a vicious cycle where force begets force, with the cycle intensifying as the fighting intensifies. The more bitter the fighting, the more opposition resistance will harden and the more difficult it will be to achieve a negotiated settlement.[xiv] As it is, nations tend to make more stringent demands on settlements to end a war than they sought in negotiations before the war.[xv] That tendency is only exacerbated the longer a war continues because nations become increasingly seized by the desire to justify past sacrifices and to end a threat once and for all.[xvi] Moreover, as suffering increases among the population, government leaders feel a growing need to obtain a better outcome than a mere settlement.[xvii] In sum, the more deep-seated the conflict and enmity become, the more difficult it will be to find an exit from the fighting.[xviii] Therefore, it behooves leaders and strategists to minimize the use of force as much as possible to both reduce the toll that war exacts on one’s nation and to diminish adversary resistance to preferred outcomes.
Pitfall #1: Overreach
While these principles are foundational to strategic thinking, there are several persistent pitfalls strategists succumb to when putting them into practice. The first is overreaching. As already discussed, war often takes on a life of its own. The sheer magnitude of the effort, the passions, the uncertainties, and the costs all serve to make war an unwieldy enterprise. One common result is that it can lead commanders to overreach after obtaining their objectives. As Clausewitz observed, the psychology of the attack is such that the momentum often causes commanders to overshoot their purpose and so fail to attain it.[xix] Iklé noted a similar phenomenon when he stated that “fighting often continues long past the point when ‘rational’ calculations would indicate the war should be ended…”[xx] Confidence arising from success on the battlefield combined with desires to justify the sacrifices of war and to irreversibly eliminate a threat can easily tempt leaders to seek just a little more. Thucydides captured this phenomenon in the Peloponnesian War when he noted that Athens continuously rejected moderate Spartan envoys as they “kept grasping at more.”[xxi] He quotes Nicias as telling the Athenian assembly on the eve of their disastrous Sicilian campaign, “Your unexpected success, as compared with what you feared at first, has made you suddenly despise [Sparta and their allies], tempting you further to aspire to the conquest of Sicily.”[xxii] The momentum of war makes it very difficult for leaders and nations to quit while they are ahead.
Two practices can go a long way toward counteracting the pull of overreach. First, recognizing that the temptation exists and acknowledging the difficulties it will present puts strategists on guard so that they might better recognize the lure when the moment comes. It can also enable them to try and reduce the organizational and political factors that can make resistance more challenging. Second, returning to the first principle of war and having clear political ends that remain at the center of their efforts allows leaders to unambiguously know when they have reached their aims and it can guard against the creep of additional objectives.[xxiii] Operation Desert Storm offers an example where these considerations enabled American leaders to avoid the temptation of overreach. With the lessons of the Vietnam War on their minds, President George H. W. Bush and General Colin Powell focused on developing clear and attainable ends for the conflict, as well as a plausible exit strategy to prevent becoming trapped in an endless war. Despite intense domestic pressure to go beyond the original objective after initial successes and remove the Saddam regime once and for all, President Bush ended the war once the coalition liberated Kuwait.[xxiv] Unambiguous political ends coupled with a recognition of the temptations that war presents provided American leaders with antidotes to overcome the pull of overreach.
Pitfall #2: Confusing means with ends
Lack of clarity and focus on political ends can also enable a second pitfall when marrying theory to practice—allowing the military means to become the ends. Once the political ends are established, strategists seek to employ the military instrument to achieve those ends. However, in the effort devoted to managing the war, strategists often neglect the causal chain that delineates how the military means will produce the political ends. As Iklé observed, “the grand design is often woefully incomplete. Usually, in fact, it is not grand enough: most of the exertion is devoted to the means—perfecting the military instruments and deciding on their use in battles and campaigns—and far too little is left for relating these means to their ends.”[xxv] Liddell Hart echoed these sentiments when he noted that, whenever war breaks out, the military aim “has been regarded as an end in itself, instead of as merely a means to the end.”[xxvi]
To avoid this pitfall, strategists should not only prioritize the first principle in terms of maintaining focus on clear political ends but also regularly assess how their military actions will produce those ends. It helps to be as explicit as possible in outlining the causal chains between the actions and ends to avoid the tendency to accept vague and unformulated connections. Strategists can also build consistent checkpoints into their battle rhythm for reviewing political ends and the causal mechanisms that the strategy is relying on to produce them. Recurring and scheduled touchpoints help prevent the endless demands of war from diverting strategists away from their primary task of aligning ends and means, and they can help avoid the pitfall of conflating the two.
Pitfall #3: Assuming a quick victory
The final pitfall that strategists must be aware of when marrying theory to practice is the temptation to assume a quick victory. The hellish nature of war and the intense demands it places on a nation naturally create a desire to win quickly and minimize the damage. Further, the emotional shock of surprise attacks, like Pearl Harbor, leaves powerful impressions on the strategic imagination and intensifies hopes about the possibilities of a swift victory, even though they rarely result in a decisive win.[xxvii] These factors have all contributed to the stubborn persistence of the idea that a knockout blow could end the war before it became too destructive. Lawrence Freedman’s history of the literature about future wars found two recurring themes along these lines: “First a growing appreciation of the difficulties of containing war so that its destructiveness could be bounded in time and space, and second, linked to this, a search for a form of decisive force that might inflict a knockout blow on an enemy and so end a war quickly and successfully.”[xxviii] To explain why future attacks in the initial phases of war would be successful when they had rarely proved decisive in the past, most pointed to new technology or tactics.[xxix] Unfortunately, the search for the magic bullet continues, and the method for ensuring a confined, short, and decisive war proves elusive.
To avoid the trap, strategists should accept that war will likely continue long after the first strikes and devote time to preparing and planning for subsequent phases of the conflict. Recognizing these tendencies allows strategists to adjust accordingly and deliberately counter those thought processes when they arise. It is far better to prepare for surprise attacks and assume a war will continue longer than expected than to be caught unprepared when a war extends past the initial moves.
Junior officers who want to start sharpening their strategic thinking in preparation for their future roles as leaders should start by rooting themselves in the principles of war that endure across time and theorists, which include focusing on the political ends, concentrating force and effort, and economizing force. The interplay between those three principles allows strategists to maximize their creativity and the impact of the military instrument. However, good strategic thinking rarely survives first contact with the enemy. Thus, young officers must also become acutely familiar with the common pitfalls of overreach, conflating means for ends, and assuming a quick victory when they are marrying theory to practice. If not, stumbles in implementation may thwart otherwise sound strategic thought.
[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984): 87.
[ii] Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction,” August 2021, 12. https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-21-46-LL.pdf
[iii] Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 237.
[iv] Ibid., 178.
[v] B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York, NY: Meridian, 1991): 357.
[vi] Fred Charles Iklé, Every War Must End (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005): 108.
[vii] Clausewitz, On War, 617.
[viii] J. C. Slessor, Airpower and Armies (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009): 83.
[ix] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 334.
[x] Ibid., 34.
[xi] Clausewitz, On War, 177.
[xii] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 322.
[xiii] Sun Tzu, Art of War, found in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China ed. Ralph D. Sawyer (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2007): 161.
[xiv] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 357.
[xv] Iklé, Every War Must End, 9.
[xvi] Ibid., 10, 12.
[xvii] Ibid., 123
[xviii] Ibid., 131.
[xix] Clausewitz, On War, 572-573.
[xx] Iklé, Every War Must End, 16.
[xxi] Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides, 246.
[xxii] Ibid., 368.
[xxiii] Clausewitz, On War, 572.
[xxiv] George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York, NY: Knopf, 1998): 489-90.
[xxv] Iklé, Every War Must End, 1.
[xxvi] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 338.
[xxvii] Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: A History (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2019): 279.
[xxviii] Ibid., xviii.