Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 1  /  

So What! The Meaning of Strategy

So What! The Meaning of Strategy So What! The Meaning of Strategy
To cite this article: Gray, Colin S, “So What! The Meaning of Strategy,” Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1, winter 2018, pages 4-7.

Strategy can prove a notably elusive quality to attempt to define and explain. So familiar has the word become that usually it would appear pedantic to bother an audience or readers with more than the word, simple and unadorned, precluding possibly pretentious seeming refinement. Infinity Journal has staked a claim as a serious home for thought on topics with some strategic merit. This being so, there may be utility in my probing for the meaning of our subject.

Possibly it is both appropriate and useful for me to remind readers that strategy is par excellence a dynamic, even mobile, concept. It is both an idea adaptable to complement behaviour with meaning that is time constrained, as well as a function as ancient as we humans have been. We are strategic creatures and we are capable of operationalizing our behaviour for very particular purposes. The theory of strategy has many working parts, too many for comfort at least.[i] Just about every reader of this Journal has been taught, and may have learnt, that the vital intellectual architecture of strategy is expressed in the relationships among just three interdependent concepts, Ends, Ways, and Means (E, W, M), with an additional value from reigning Assumptions (A). What may not always be as plain to see and understand as it should be is the holistic nature of strategy. Each of the four concepts central to an understanding of strategy are shot through with potential troubles, while the interdependencies among the four magnify the ill effects of particular weakness. Also, poverty in the quality of one component among the conceptual all, will be near certain to have ill consequences for the rest.

Understanding the Question

A vital key necessary for the understanding of strategy is realization that ‘so what’ may be succeeded either by an exclamation mark or a question mark. The former indicates some degree of surprise, the latter some measure of doubt. By its nature strategy inherently is an idea linked with doubt and uncertainty. Strategy is always a gamble, though usually we can exercise some control over the scale of the risks we run, and therefore, we hope, over the scale of potential loss should events not develop favourably for our interests. It is sad news for scientists and even social scientists that they are not, indeed cannot be, trained for the purpose of removing, or even reducing seriously the hazards in strategic choice. Plainly it is a challenge to attempt to teach classes on the making of strategy; followed by the execution of strategy, given the handicaps normal to strategy construction and execution.

In order to understand the challenge to understanding that virtually all strategy must present, there can be no evading a fundamental understanding of what it is about. Often, one feels, strategy the noun and its adjectival derivative, strategic, are simply words employed to decorate what otherwise would look, indeed most probably would be, unduly commonplace. Strategy easily leaves the rigours of a military connection, because today it is very largely naked of inherent meaning, instead being deployable in aid of my number of purposes. In the military context from whence it came there is always the spur to performance provided by an adversary. However, given the universality of the logic that governs strategy, and the rich individuality of many states’ situation in most respects, the mere familiarity of strategically relevant matters offers scant comfort.

By far the most important question to attempt to answer about a state’s strategy is, simply, “What is its purpose?”. The purpose can be positive, negative or, as so often is the case, both simultaneously without being too much in direct opposition to each other. It may be impolitic, but it is usually highly pertinent to return to the central matter of purpose when, perhaps if, strategy is revisited in some historical retrospect. After all, it is rather a challenge to understand how well, or poorly, we have done, if we lack as a benchmark knowledge of what it was we attempted to accomplish. As with the basic structure of strategy, EWM, inexorably the great stream of time constantly moves on, taking with it the particular values for the working of strategy. So much that is important to the working of strategy is really a moving part of the whole context, that we should be careful not to misplace, let alone forget, the EWM and A formula of ‘basics’. A particular glory of these is that they are not vulnerable to invalidation by inconvenient local historical detail. They work as well for Imperial Rome as they do today for Russia or the United States. It can be objected that EWMA is so austerely economical of all detail that it lacks substantive value for strategy. Nothing would be further from the truth. It is precisely because EWMA eschews all attempts at localizing detail, that it is able to preserve the great beauty of simplicity and easy comprehension.

Although many people are affected by strategy, very few actually make it, or even attempt to do so. An important reason why strategy lacks much popular support is because hardly anybody actually does it, explicitly and empirically understood. Seemingly, nearly everyone knows the word, or at least words in the local language that approximate thereto, but who really does it? The answer is only handfuls of people anywhere, though that may not correspond well with nominal job titles and categorization. It is not well understood that in a vital sense strategy is ‘done’ by a cast of hundreds, perhaps thousands for the superpowers, though at the level of significant choices, far fewer than that. The reason for my doubting who does and does not do strategy pertains to the essential meaning assigned to the concept. Conceptually, this is dangerous terrain in which to venture. The differences among strategy, operations, and tactics, each from the others, can appear strained and in some peril of breaking unless one is very careful. So, what is strategy?

Probably the best way forward towards understanding is by means of the clearest possible identification of what strategy is, and hence strategic is not. The fundamental basis for grasping the meaning of strategy can be approached by understanding it to be composed entirely of tactical and operational level behaviour. This may sound rather ethereal, though not, I hope, vague. Ironically, perhaps, it is the very material physicality of tactics and operations that serves all too often to mislead. To military professionals obliged day after day to cope with geography in the raw and possibly with combat in all its brutal horror, strategy can appear a mystery from another planet. Even the very concept of strategy can prove to require a mental step or two that is beyond the grasp, let alone the grip, of many soldiers, even those with several stars. The most important step to take, if one dares, is full registration of the fact that strategy has no independent physical reality. This means, of course, that any and every discussion of strategy, or of particular forces and vehicles presumed to be in some sense strategic, either are plainly incorrect or are more likely than not to be such. The enduring problem with strategy that hinders understanding, and therefore sensible usage, is that it does not photograph well, indeed it does not photograph at all. We should have no difficulty registering the fact that books on strategy seem bereft of any direct pictures of their subject. It is revealing to ask a class of students what strategy looks like. As an interesting next step, one could ask the class about the possible and even some probable consequences of their endemic elusiveness of strategy. In order to lighten the tone of discussion a little, it may be helpful to offer the thought that strategy is rather like love: you cannot see it, but in the future you would notice its absence, if not tomorrow then the day after. Because strategy and tactics work in very different currencies, appreciation of one does not necessarily serve for a competent grasp of both. Moreover, very deep immersion in the concerns of one, may actually disable respecting competence in the other. Notwithstanding the many Office descriptions that claim their human occupants are committed to the solving of strategic problems, in point of fact very few people attempt to do strategy. After all, we could ask, perhaps rather cynically, certainly sceptically, how many strategists does a polity really need, or could it afford? While deception is a vital adjunct to intelligence for the high purpose of national security, sheer diversity to fit local preferences and prejudices is not; that is a road to confusion.

It can be a challenge to explain to students of strategy that even the austere minimalist triumph of the E in EWM cannot be taken as authoritative. The theory of strategy rightly commands that military power must be subject to political control. It should follow as a necessary truth that the policy objectives due to be served by armed forces ought to be the product of an orderly political process. We are aware, however, that national security in its military dimension is constructed by a process that is distinctly disorderly. Furthermore, when countries go to war they do not always, or these days even often, conduct war á l’outrance. Simple seeming theory presents us just with all-purpose policy EWMs in the traditional formula. In almost every case, however, the politics of policy can produce confused outcome that must serve for the guidance of strategy.

Complexity and Holism

I have recently completed a book on the theory of strategy which seeks to explain its subject in the light cast by twenty-three principles. Nonetheless, I recognize the merit in the common device of explanation with critically important assistance provided by the Trinitarian approach comprising Ends, Ways and Means, with the important addition of Assumptions. The great simplicity of this trinity-plus renders it of high value as a quick aid to vital thought. What it does is direct both leaders and followers to notably bare essentials. The theory of strategy provides much important detail about the making and working of strategy, but often the official and the general public need will be for information more immediately useful than that. To cite the very old claimed analogy you could simply need to know the time, not how to repair the clock. Happily, the ancient trinity and the detail of general theory are not at all in competition. The full scale of strategy theory and the speedy trinity are entirely complementary. Because a blizzard of detail is probably an unavoidable blight of this computerized age, there is much that can and should be said in praise of conceptual devices that reclaim, indeed highlight in their economy, the most essential ideas and methods, without paying an unacceptably high price in loss of meaningful detail.

We cannot and should not expect our political leaders and senior civil servants to know by heart, if called upon ever, all the Principles in a theory of strategy. However, we can and should expect those people to be intimately familiar with the four categories that collectively are literally essential to the security and prosperity of the country. Of course, the theory of strategy in just four concepts is gloriously economical of words. Alas, EMW and A is helpful to thought and possible action precisely because of its extreme economy, to zero. Nonetheless, this extreme weakness happens, ironically, to be critical to its real strength. EWM and A, when imbibed and recognized to comprise an entry in a person’s category of great (or very important) concepts virtually with moral force, can be a notable force for more effective behaviour. What I am saying here is so obviously correct that one feels that it may read as near banality. The facts of recent strategic history are not encouraging. In my more than 50 years of focus on nominally strategic matters, the United States has waged and lost three wars (Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan). None of these were brief encounters. This temporal fact of repeated longevity meant that there was time, usually ample time, for corrections to be made over political goals, strategic methods, and military means. Almost needless to say, the faulty assumptions that hampered or actually disabled Western (usually) good intentions have been legion. This author has lived in three countries (Britain, the United States, and Canada), and has talked to officials, including elected politicians, and soldiers in each of them. There once was a time when I devoted most of my effort to the study of military nuclear issues of strategy and security, but eventually I became convinced that the ideas of strategy and of nuclear threat and possible use were not usefully compatible or usable by a theorist, this theorist at least. Of course, a strategy of severely limited nuclear use was conceivable, and could even be practicable. The complicating trouble was that I found it impossible to believe either that Russians, very much contrary to the norms of their strategic culture, or that the Russians and the Americans, acting together in a deadly duel, would prove able to wage a limited nuclear war. My interest in nuclear strategy never really recovered from that slowly dawning negative conclusion.

To conclude this part of the article I should mention the fact, perhaps I should say judgment in order to control the peril of hubris, that critically vital thought on the meaning and possible (very limited) use of nuclear weapons has not been written and published since 1966. In my opinion the last book that is truly essential reading on what, ironically, we call nuclear strategy is Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence. Together with Herman Kahn’s book, On Escalation, which was published in 1965, these seminal works can be seen as signalling the end of the original and creative phase of American theorization about strategy and nuclear weapons.[ii] The effort to make strategic sense of these weapons had lasted, endured perhaps, for a decade from the time of William Kaufmann’s work at the RAND Corporation in 1956,[iii] until Kahn made escalation an idea and word all too appropriate in 1965. That was the year when President Lyndon Johnson decided that America could escalate its way to victory in South Vietnam. Unfortunately, events were to show that this was not the case. The United States could not succeed in Vietnam because its official thought and behaviour on EWM and A simply was wrong. Fundamentally, the American policy error in opposing North Vietnam and the Vietcong had to mean that it did not much matter which Ways and Means were attempted, because they were condemned to fail. As if Vietnam from the mid–1960s until the mid–1970s had failed to register the point with adequate severity, Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s hammered home yet again just why it is that policy Ends, meaning policy and its politics, have to be granted the Premium position that Clausewitz insisted must be the case.[iv] If policy and its politics are weak and uncertain, it will matter very little how competent and robust are your military Means. You probably will not prove able to fight your way out of the waging of the wrong war. To be fair to bold policymakers, one must conclude that often it will not be at all obvious ahead of time just how fickle the gods of war can prove themselves to be. However, it can surely be no secret that a decision to wage war, almost any war at any time and in any environment, will be a gamble. Also, war is different from all else in the human historical narrative.

It is possibly ironic that although we know a very great deal about war and warfare from the evidence we glean from and about the past, this immensity of information derived from sources of all levels of reliability do not, indeed cannot, be used for thoroughly reliable prediction. Those of us who study and write about strategy, tend understandably not to advertise widely a very notable aspect of our work. Specifically, the whole purpose of strategy lies in potential evidence that must for ever remain in the future where it has to be inaccessible to us when it ventures very far beyond tomorrow. Strangely, perhaps, this necessary blankness about the future has not usually had an unduly daunting effect upon some of those we would prefer to see discouraged. The major item of meaning important in entirely appropriate scepticism about prediction is that it is necessary to remember that the future by definition has not happened, nor will it ever do so.

The meaning of strategy lies in its consequences and their meaning. This is as easy, indeed certain, to write as it is near impossible to employ sensibly as a source of light. The unfortunate fact is that there is no power supply for light on the future, save only for our ability to read history intelligently. Efforts to enhance reliable predictability are not entirely impressive for the weather that troubles those among us living in northern climes, but even the truly rich array of meteorological variations we find in Britain pale into near insignificance when compared with the far richer range of possible happenings that can have some influence upon our strategic history. The root problem, of course, is that not only do we not know where we are going, but in vital addition we do not know, really know, that is, what mix of events will get us there, or when. The context for all this is somewhat usefully conveyed by the big conception of there being a ‘great stream of time’.[v] This extremely high concept tells us that there is significant sense in which history’s march does not have an end point for us, we hope! Beyond that rather obvious point, however, it is useful and possibly even necessary for our human temporal vanity to be disciplined by the reminder that the future, we hope, will comprise a very long time. This sobering thought should help reduce some of the scale of ambition that political pretension reveals.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of our strategists not forgetting that their job is all about consequences. Many of them may well behave they need to keep their eyes on the ball of tactics and its master, operations. This is easily understandable. After all, let us worry about the tactical problems of tomorrow when, or if, tomorrow arrives. Somehow, the ‘tomorrow’ of today, the consideration of which was expediently deferred yesterday, never quite arrives. By their nature, consequences commonly are difficult to anticipate, even when conscious effort to do so is made. Consequences, however, are made by the strategy of today.


[i] My latest foray into this realm is, Theory of Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
[ii] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1966); Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965).
[iii] William W. Kaufmann, ed., Military Policy and National Security (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956).
[iv] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, tr., Michael Howard and Peter Paret (1832–4; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 87.
[v] R. E. Neustadt and E. R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986).