In a recent Infinity Journal essay, Colin S. Gray wrote, “Military officers perform the strategic function at every level of command, from a platoon on upwards,” and that “strategic competence” ought to be “widespread.”[i] Moreover, he has separately written, “strategic genius is rare, strategic talent is more common” which “can be improved by formal education…[to generate] instinct for a better performance.”[ii] For that, one might consider Gray an optimist. However, he concludes the Infinity Journal article with a warning: “although there is no new knowledge to be discovered about strategy, old knowledge can be lost.”[iii]
Even at storied West Point, this counsel goes unheeded. The trimmings of strategy are everywhere at West Point; the campus was a crucial strategic location during the American War of Independence and maintains strategic value as the cradle of U.S. Army officer professionalism. It has produced some superb strategists, as the saying on recruiting posters reminds prospective cadets: “At West Point, much of the history we teach was made by people we taught.”
Unfortunately, none of the strategy made by people West Point taught was a direct result of what West Point chooses to teach. Permit me to explain. I am the director for a lightly populated elective course on strategy at West Point – roughly 1.5% of the cadets take the course annually. Strategy – or the balance of ends, ways and means – as a distinct academic endeavor is not part of the standard curriculum for all cadets.[iv] As West Point Superintendent Major General Samuel Koster said in 1970, “we’re more interested in the ‘doer’ than the ‘thinker.’”[v] This statement rings true today.
This past semester I had visitors from the Israeli Defense Force. There were three, one Lieutenant Colonel and two Captains. They taught in the Israeli military education system and were canvassing similar American educational institutions. They were, in a word, “shocked” at such a strategy course. “We do not even attempt this sort of knowledge until an officer is a Lieutenant Colonel in our system,” the senior officer exclaimed.
This is clearly not just an American, or West Point problem. Even the most junior military officer, on day one, must be able to identify, describe and potentially diagnose the conflict they find themselves to be a part of. The current Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army General Raymond Odierno recently wrote in Foreign Policy that his aim was to develop junior officers “cognizant of the potential strategic ramifications of their decisions.”[vi] This essay proposes that a standalone strategy course ought to be part of every military officer’s commissioning process, and will offer for support two historical pieces of evidence. When complete, this essay will add two strong reasons to support General Odierno’s statement: strategic understanding builds morale and enables adaptability.
Morale & Second Lieutenant William Lochren
Developing a junior military officer’s strategic understanding helps to build the morale necessary for battlefield success. Much ink has been spilled on the importance of morale in combat. Napoleon’s maxim that “the morale is to the physical as three is to one,” or Field Marshall Lord Wavell’s comments that the “final deciding factor of all engagements, battles and wars is the morale of the opposing forces.”[vii]
But how does one instill this feeling, this intangible, hard-to-describe sentiment? Gray explains in his book The Strategy Bridge:
…obedience to orders issued by proper authority is expected, indeed is required, sometimes on pain even of death, in all armies. But, for soldiers willingly to risk their lives in ways that exceed minimal or perhaps only token compliance, there is always need for a dose of the ingredients that make for high enough morale. The ingredients can be chemical (vodka, rum, indeed anything alcohol), spiritual (trust, inspiration, self-confidence) or a lack of alternatives (desperation).[viii]
Upon reading that analysis, a modern junior officer might lose heart. As death threats and chemical aids (beyond caffeine) seem unlikely, and desperation seems pessimistic, his list leaves only one real option: inspiration. The cognitive ability to directly link one’s tactical actions to a particular military objective and policy goal can be an immense source of unit morale. The American Civil War experience of Second Lieutenant William Lochren, a civilian attorney and later regimental historian, of Company K, 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Union Army of the Potomac can provide a helpful example.
Second Lieutenant Lochren was at the Battle of Gettysburg, near the center of the Union line on 2 July 1863. The Union Army’s Major General Daniel Sickles’ 3rd Corps had pushed forward in such a way that created a gap between his forces and the rest of the line. Near the end of the day’s fighting, the Union line thinned such that a Confederate brigade led by Brigadier General Cadmus Wilcox surged forward in an effort to pierce the Union front. As Lochren recalled,
We stood in full view of Sickles’ battle in the peach orchard half a mile to the front, and witnessed with eager anxiety the varying fortunes of that sanguinary conflict, until at length, with gravest apprehension, we saw Sickles’ men give way before the heavier forces of Longstreet and Hill, and come back, slowly, at first, and rallying down the slope by the Trostle house, across the low ground, up the slope on our side, and past our position to the rear.[ix]
Directly adjacent to the 1st Minnesota was the 19th Maine and Private Silas Adams. After the war Private Adams described that particular scene by simply asking, “What meaner place could man be put in?”[x]
It was at this moment that Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, in charge of the Union center and the 2nd Corps, saw the break as well as the advancing Confederates. When Major General Hancock realized that there were only the roughly 289 men of the 1st Minnesota available, he exclaimed: “My God, are these all the men we have here?”[xi] He then ordered the 1st Minnesota to advance to take the rebel battle flags, against approximately 1,100 Confederates.[xii] Later, Hancock would write:
Reinforcements were coming on the run, but I knew that before they could reach the threatened point the Confederates, unless checked, would seize the position. I would have ordered that regiment in if I had known that every man would be killed. It had to be done.[xiii]
Simultaneously, Second Lieutenant William Lochren recorded this assessment: “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant – death or wounds to us all; the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position, and probably the battlefield.”[xiv]
This is a truly noteworthy statement from a junior military officer. This is the height of strategic instinct – Lochren clearly identified the unit’s military objective and linked it directly to the organization’s broader military objective. Simply put, time was necessary and the men of the 1st Minnesota provided this time to enable the Union to hold this part of the field on July 2nd, in turn ensuring the Union would turn back the broader Confederate threat to Pennsylvania and Northern will. Second Lieutenant Lochren’s strategic understanding empowered him to build the morale necessary for success in a difficult and critical battlefield endeavor.
As a member of the unit later put it, “we were there to meet the requirements of the occasion, and were ready to do it, whatever it might cost.”[xv] And certainly the costs were high. Though the exact figure is disputed, around 225 of the men that went into that charge were either killed or wounded, which is reputed to be the worst loss for any regiment in a single engagement of the war.[xvi]
Adaptability & Captain Russell Volckmann
Developing a junior military officer’s strategic understanding enables adaptability, which is critical when conflicts veer in unexpected directions. Military adaptability as a useful characteristic has been supported broadly, but never as well as by Sir Michael Howard in 1974:
I am tempted indeed to declare dogmatically that whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am also temped to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives…[xvii]
More recently, in one of his last speeches as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates spoke to the Corps of Cadets at West Point on 25 February 2011.[xviii] He asked what he considered the “important question,” which was “how can the Army prepare, train, and retain officers with the necessary multifaceted experience to take on a broad range of missions and roles? Where there is not one, but many doctrines in play?”[xix] Gates then advised the audience to take “some instruction and inspiration from the career of Russell Volckmann, Class of 1934.”[xx]
Perhaps it would be instructive to heed Secretary Gates’ advice and look more deeply into Captain (later Brigadier General) Volckmann’s experience with adaptability after the surrender of Bataan on the island of Northern Luzon.
His wife and child having been sent back to the United States due to the Japanese threat, Captain Volckmann was embedded with the Philippine Army until being reassigned as a division intelligence officer just before the surrender. In early April 1942, Volckmann learned about several guerilla units operating in North Luzon.[xxi] As Volckmann put it,
When an opportunity presented itself, I cornered General Brougher.
‘Sir, I’m still in pretty good physical shape – I have a lot of fight left in me. Would you give me permission to try and work my way north to [an Army Colonel running guerilla operations] if and when we are ordered to surrender?’
The General, very tired, paused for a few moments and then replied, ‘Sure thing. I’ll report you missing in action on a patrol. If you try, the best of luck to you.’
I questioned several of my friends to see if I could persuade anyone to join me. No one seemed interested, the usual reply being, ‘You won’t have a chance. There are too many Filipino informers and fifth columnists. Why try? The Japs will treat us ok.’
…Above all, I still felt there was much yet to be done…and I could not resign myself to surrendering.[xxii]
This statement belies a terrific sense of initiative and willingness to win. Where his peers chose to stay on track with the unit, despite the obvious defeat that was on the way – Volckmann went a different route. And, after many months of slow movement, illness and recovery, Volckmann survived and by October 1942 reported that he was “back in the war, only this time as [a guerilla].”[xxiii]
The massive challenge Volckmann faced was that “In all my training I had never been exposed to the techniques and policies of resistance and guerilla warfare.”[xxiv] There was no guide, no prior knowledge, on which to fall back.
On 9 June 1943, the Japanese captured the two colonels in charge of resistance activities.[xxv] Volckmann, age 32, assumed command “as the next senior officer in North Luzon.”[xxvi] This is where Volckmann’s story gets interesting; he commanded a force that eventually grew to 22,000 by the end of the war.[xxvii] The numbers though, are far outweighed by his reflections on his initial strategic assessment.
Captain Volckmann began by describing his “resistance movement” as “collectively the discontented elements of a populace who by various methods oppose and operate against established civil and military authority.”[xxviii] He assessed that the “treatment imposed on the Filipinos” created an “underlying potential for resistance” amongst the population.[xxix] Further, the
…major question was, Could the individuals who basically were opposed to the Japanese be organized and directed so as to express their opposition against the [Japanese] actively by subversion and guerilla warfare? The answer appeared to depend on an analysis of the human, psychological, and physical factors as they existed at the time.[xxx]
Volckmann looked first to the “human factors” and decided he had a group to work with that had the “courage and stamina to withstand privations, endure hardships, and face imminent death while fighting back against great odds.”[xxxi] He appealed to their history of insurrection against the Spanish and Americans at the turn of the century and determined that the “human factors” were “favorable.”[xxxii]
Volckmann next considered the “calculable or physical factors,” reporting that he “included topography, enemy forces, friendly forces, space and time, and moral and material support.”[xxxiii] Geographically, North Luzon’s “extensive rugged mountains, vast forests, and limited roads and communications [were in Volckmann’s] favor.”[xxxiv]
Particularly laudable was Volckmann’s understanding of the broader strategic context in which he fought. This section is worth reviewing at length:
The [Japanese], to control such an area completely and effectively without gaining the cooperation of the populace, would have to divert and maintain huge forces in North Luzon. But they were committed in force throughout Asia and the Southwest Pacific.
They could, however (as they did in late 1942), concentrate sizable forces and conduct an extensive campaign against guerilla forces and their supporting populace. They could be expected to continue to have this capability until Allied forces threatened or actually landed in Luzon. However, each Allied victory and the reduction of the time and space between the Allied forces and Luzon would reduce Japanese capabilities and in turn strengthen Filipino morale. I was certain also that reduction of the time and space factor would likewise mean material support, provided, of course, that contact could be established with friendly forces. To me, then, the time and space factor was the key.[xxxv]
Captain Volckmann’s intellectual understanding of strategy – the ability to see the wider picture and where his efforts and use of force fit into it – is instructive and provides guidance for what ought to be expected of commissioned military officers. His “ends” remained the same, but his strategic understanding supported an adaptability of his “ways” due to sufficiently reduced “means.”
Admittedly, repetition of this exact scenario is unlikely. Cynics will charge that Volckmann likely did not have any formal training in strategy as this paper advocates. This much is true, but consider a powerful counterfactual: what if more of Volckmann’s peers had his broader understanding of strategy? Would that not have made Japanese efforts on North Luzon more difficult?
Though both historical examples provided may seem implausible, there are contemporary occurrences similar enough which suggest the desirability of building strategic understanding into pre-commissioning military education. For example, consider this recent story from Vanity Fair about the conflict in Libya:
…on the night of March 21, 2011, [U.S. Air Force] Captain Tyler Stark took off in an F-15 [as a navigator] from a base in Italy with a pilot he’d only just met, on his first combat mission. He now had reasons to think it might also be his last.
Even so, [after having to bail out of the plane] as he floated down, he felt almost calm. The night air was calm, and there was no sound, only awesome silence. He didn’t really know why he’d been sent there, to Libya, in the first place. He knew his assignment, his specific mission. But he didn’t know the reason for it.[xxxvi] [Author’s emphasis, MLC].
What happens when direct military orders are insufficient or hierarchy breaks down – what fills that role? The military prefers officers with initiative, as when General David Petraeus famously insisted to his subordinates that, “In the absence of guidance or orders, figure out what they should have been and execute them aggressively.”[xxxvii] However, General Petraeus’ sentiment is pregnant with a massive assumption: that they will know what to do; that they are imbued with strategic understanding. Such a notion, as in Captain Stark’s case, may prove false.
Perhaps a thought experiment is in order: imagine instead drifting down in that parachute a Second Lieutenant Lochren or Captain Volckmann. Would their characteristics – Lochren’s ability to inspire morale or Volckmann’s adaptability – would these not be a significant improvement?
In 1913, on the eve of the Great War, Reverend Percy Kettlewell, a headmaster at a private school in South Africa, remarked, “Schools are like munitions factories and
ought to be turning out a constant supply of living material.”[xxxvii] All military schools charged with creating officers could be construed in such a way. Their graduates control society’s weapons; this special class is expected to defend defenseless societies and prosecute purposeful, orchestrated violence on behalf of their citizenry. As war is not going away, the warriors built will, with certainty, be used. The vagaries of modern warfare require more than simple automatons programmed for tactical implementation; an understanding of strategy supplies abundant morale and necessary adaptability for all conflict paradigms.
West Point and many other military commissioning sources are designed to build skilled tacticians with great emphasis placed on the current character of conflict. In Major General Koster’s words, they are often more concerned with battlefield “doers” than battlefield “thinkers.” As such, places like West Point inevitably produce officers of all varieties, Lochrens, Starks and everything in between.
But when West Point produces a Volckmann, as it did in 1934, it is often in spite of, not due to, the education provided. This must change, and a useful step would be to ensure that a multi- and interdisciplinary academic strategy course is a part of every soon-to-be officer’s education.
If this is not the case, Gray’s admonition will require adjustment – at West Point, strategic knowledge is being lost in perhaps the worst, saddest way – for lack of effort.
The writer is an actively serving Major and Strategist in the U.S. Army. He is currently the Course Director for DS470: Military Strategy at West Point, working on a dissertation on generalship under Professor Colin S. Gray at the University of Reading (UK). The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
[i] Colin S. Gray, “Strategy: Some Notes for a User’s Guide”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 2, Spring 2012, p. 7.
[ii] Colin S. Gray, “Schools for Strategy: Teaching Strategy for 21st Century Conflict,” Strategic Studies Institute: U.S. Army War College (November 2009), v.
[iii] Ibid., p. 9.
[iv] Note: This refers to a specifically tailored multi- and interdisciplinary strategy course, which synchronizes the received wisdom from many relevant fields. Though history has immense value in seeking wisdom by learning about what happened, anthropology and psychology describe crucial human factors, and political science informs with important broad theories, there is an essential leap from these academic domains to finding applicable solutions to put to use on the modern battlefield for the achievement of policy aims. These often stove-piped academic fields are necessary to understanding conflict, but not sufficient as separate entities. War and strategy are fundamentally too big to fit into one discipline. Also, see Arthur F. Lykke, “Toward an Understanding of Military Strategy,” The U.S. Army War College Guide to Strategy, 2001, p. 179-185.
[v] Ward Just, Military Men (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p. 24.
[vi] Ray Odierno, “The Force of Tomorrow.” Foreign Policy Online. (4 February 2013), at [Accessed 30 March 2013].
[vii] See Arhibald Wavell, Speaking Generally: Broadcasts, Orders, and Addresses in Time of War (1939-43), (London: Macmillan, 1946), p. 79. Cited in Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 61.
[viii] Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, p. 215.
[ix] See Brian Leehan, Pale Horse at Plum Run: The First Minnesota at Gettysburg, (Saint Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002), p. 50.
[x] Ibid., p. 49-50.
[xi] Ibid., p. 55.
[xii] Ibid., p. 56, p. 58.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 57.
[xiv] Ibid., p. 56.
[xv] Ibid., p. 140.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 170, 179.
[xvii] Michael Howard and A.J. Wilson, ‘Military Science in an Age of Peace’, The RUSI Journal, 119: 1, 1974, p. 7.
[xviii] Robert M. Gates, “Speech to the U.S. Military Academy Corps of Cadets,” (25 February 2011), at < http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1539> [Accessed 30 March 2013].
[xxi] Russell W. Volckmann, We Remained: Three Years Behind the Enemy Lines in the Philippines. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1954), p. 41.
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 87.
[xxiv] Ibid., p. 105.
[xxv] Ibid., p. 119.
[xxvi] Ibid., p. 120.
[xxvii] See Gates.
[xxviii] Volckmann, p. 105.
[xxix] Ibid., 106.
[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 107.
[xxxv] Ibid., p. 107-108.
[xxxvi] Michael Lewis, “Obama’s Way.” Vanity Fair. (October 2012), at [Accessed 30 March 2013].
[xxxvii] Spencer Ackerman, “Petraeus: Fight ‘With Discipline,’ Contract With Care,” Wired Magazine: Danger Room Weblog, (28 July 2010), at [Accessed 30 March 2013].
[xxxviii] Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. (New York: First Mariner Books Ed., 2012), p. 67-68.