Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 3  /  

Strategic Sense – Missing from Action

Strategic Sense – Missing from Action Strategic Sense – Missing from Action
To cite this article: Gray, Colin S., “Strategic Sense – Missing from Action,” Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue 3, fall 2016, pages 4-8.

© Sadikgulec | – US Army Soldiers Photo

As I recall clearly, Infinity Journal was launched with an excellent article by T. X. Hammes on the greatly neglected, but truly vital subject of the assumptions that always lie behind strategic choice.[i] From that first-rate conceptual launch of this journal I will move in part to the other end of the strategic story, and look critically at how well or poorly strategists have performed in practice. Importantly, in addition, I will consider briefly both how and why strategic performance often has been as disappointing to its authors and also to its executives in command, and to the political licensing authorities, if not always usefully in well-disciplined control.

Key Concepts

This short article is all about the relationship between strategic theory and strategic practice. As many readers will know and understand all too well, the theory and practice of strategy are not exactly welded together in an ideal marriage. It is hardly surprising that the topic here has not attracted an abundance of conceptual and literary talent, given the enormous uncertainties, and inevitably controversial judgements that often are unavoidable in practice. To Hammes’ excellent terse treatment of the critically significant role, for and in, strategy played by reigning assumptions, also I must add M. L. R. Smith’s first-rate[ii] and much needed, reminder of the hugely significant role for strategy often played by what Clausewitz termed ‘passion’—for due appreciation, as usual, of the Prussian Grand Master.[iii] In this essay I strive to cast some small but I hope, significant amount of light upon two concepts: one all too well known to readers of this journal, strategic effect or consequences, the other familiar but, in my opinion, far too little employed, even among nominal strategists, strategic sense.[iv] Indeed, this second concept remains largely unknown, as any library search swiftly reveals. This is unfortunate, because the value of concepts and theory for the world of strategic practice should be, indeed needs to be, high. The historical record of undoubted strategic incompetence appears to show that intellectual and attempted pragmatic mastery of key strategic concepts has not played a leading role in the educational preparation of leaders in public office in many countries. This is unfortunate, albeit readily understandable, given the typically high priority that the holders of public office have little practical choice other than to give first place to temporally more pressing domestic political needs.

Politics and Strategic Sense

Because the sole purpose of strategy can only be to influence the course of events in ways anticipated as positive by principal state actors, it needs to be fixed firmly in the minds both of military commanders and also of those they strive to serve. Given that the responsibilities of the chain of military high command must terminate with the political authority of usually civilian politicians, it should be quite obvious that the potent concept of strategic effect needs to be dominated by political calculations (and guesses). Indeed, in order to achieve strategic effect there first needs to be a political law of strategic sense. I write this despite my recognition that the potent concept of strategic effect remains undertheorized. It is logically compelling to attempt to insist that in order to maximize the prospect of achieving strategic success it is important to attempt to employ in high military command only those few, those very few, professional soldiers in whom there is well evidenced confidence of strategic sense. Because of the possibility of inconvenient decisions by an uncooperative enemy, the compelling logic that should link anticipated strategic effect to strategic sense as the primary cause cannot be trusted to be delivered strictly as necessary. In practice, there tends to be far too little upon which one can rely with respect to the connection between the two very high concepts that together comprise my subject here. The problem I seek to address is really off the Richter scale of challenge, but that rather discouraging realization cannot be permitted to close down enquiry.

I am not attempting to persuade readers of Infinity Journal that there may be feasible ways to defeat the laws of probability, reliable at the least as a guess resting on a high quality of suggestive evidence, but I do believe that some helpful foreknowledge probably is attainable. Furthermore, I am convinced that such an effort to understand whither most likely we are tending to go is both a morally prudent and an attainable political obligation on our part. The most plausible key to achievement of the necessary foreknowledge lies with the enabling concept and exercise of logical and strategic sense and what ought to be its practical corollary, strategic effect. This hardly astonishing suggestion amounts to a belief that through the exercise of strategic sense, strategic effect can be encouraged and possibly even secured, that would have some political consequences we believe desirable.

To summarize the argument:

  • Strategists with strategic sense may know what ought to work well enough for the politically determined desired result for policy.
  • Such appreciation with strategic sense should direct the attention of our leaders to the probable longer term consequences of actions taken in the near term.

Strategy and Its Consequences

The leading problem is that the high concepts most favoured here are as potent in thoroughly unreliable promise as they are often opaque. That granted, we should understand that the only valid examination of strategy has to be in terms of its consequences, this is the true coin of relevant assessment. Of course, this is far easier to assert as desirable than it is to practice, given that it implies the claim for an unknowable understanding of the future.


The principal subject of this essay has been well described, almost defined, by Robert Lyman, who writes from a background of twenty years in the British Army. Lyman advises as follows

But it is not enough simply to be a good leader under fire, and to be a model of valour. As Socrates identified, generals must also be able to plan, and they must be able to understand and contribute to the strategic as well as the battlefield aspect of warfare. Effective command requires strategic sense. Higher commanders need to understand the broader picture and wider context in which their own military questions take place, and thus to structure, plan and mount operations that meet the requirements of this wider strategy. They may not themselves be involved in the construction of grand strategy, but is paramount that they understand why these decisions are made so they can make battlefield decisions intelligently.[v]

Lyman proceeds to explain that commanders must be able to plan, and then communicate these plans to their subordinate commanders, who need to understand what the commander intends to achieve by his strategy; in other words, what the outcome is intended to be. This appears sufficiently clear in principle, but in practice a general may be captive to tactical and operational, not to mention political, concerns and, as a consequence have little if any time for thought that could be labelled strategic. Since strategy is all and only about the consequences of tactical and operational behaviour, this will prove a potentially disabling limitation or command.


American military historian, Williamson Murray, has argued persuasively that although tactical military error is unfortunate, particularly for the human victims of error, mistakes at the tactical level of combat engagement with the enemy are not usually fatal for a total military effort.[vi] The reason is because the timelines commonly are radically different among tactics, operations, and strategy. Tactical and even operational level error, when such clearly is revealed by the military course of events to be such, usually can be corrected in a matter of hours, possibly in days. Only rarely could even an operational level mistake have truly profound negative consequences. This is not to deny the possibility; however, the conduct of D–Day, 6 June 1944, springs to mind as a candidate in theory for a contrasting set of operational choices. General Dwight D. Eisenhower had ample grounds for such doubt.[vii] Even if his anxiety proved needless it is not difficult to comprehend why errors concerning the ruling operational assumptions for D–Day could hardly fail to promote Allied anxieties of the worst kind.

Following Murray’s insightful lead, we note that the timelines for effective corrective action are radically different, as between the different levels of warfare. To change the operational course of conflict usually requires an operational planning horizon of months, whereas a change in strategy may have to entail a commitment to change numbered in years. Behind, though detectably influencing, indeed often directing, strategy should be the political decisions that provide sense and therefore justification for the entire belligerent enterprise. To complete the picture, behind the political decisions will lie the fundamental assumptions and attitudes contextual for the belligerency. Save only for the resolution of error that typically follows defeat unmistakably, the consequences of error will not always be plain to see. Indeed, the situation may be somewhat akin generically to conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s. In the situations of both those countries the true depth of Allied failure took years to reveal itself. What was scarcely less clear was the fact that in neither country was the multinational Allied effort led by any close approximation to strategic sense consistently applied over the necessary span of years. As subsequent events have clarified beyond room for plausible contention, and to make quite explicit what should be denied no longer, the Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were both abject failures. Furthermore, they attest to the ancient caution about the strong desirability of resisting the impulse to join an armed conflict when one lacks a powerful and compelling explanation as to how, and on what terms, you should be able subsequently to disengage.

Strategic Sense

It is all very well to discuss particular consequences as being allegedly the principal product of strategy, but cause and effect often cannot reliably be identified so clearly. The entire Western literature on deterrence requires a quality of evidence that typically cannot be literally accessed. There is always a large measure of uncertainty about bold assertions on cause and effect, and further research might not yield definitive answers. Strategic sense in such cases is reduced to the level of guesswork or, in a rather unconvincingly Clausewitzian guise, as ‘genius’.[viii] Notwithstanding the high but essentially futile aspirations of modern social science, it seems unlikely that the near-intuitive genius of which the Prussian wrote will be superseded by any pretentions to the reliable knowledge of science, hard or soft. The invention or fortuitous discovery of some phenomena that can be used to generate numbers issued to serve as data for proof or illustration, will not serve well as evidence. The highest concept that is my theme here, strategic sense, is not likely ever to be a matter appropriate for metric treatment. This is why Clausewitz’s consideration of our subject under the umbrella-like rubric of ‘genius’ is thoroughly unhappily uncertain in respect of evidence. There can be no denying that the concept of strategic sense, which refers essentially to a quality requiring inclusive judgment, is a light year in analytical distance from the competing method known as Effects Based Operations (usually known more economically, simply as EBO, many aspects of which are extremely likely to be contestable).[ix]

Acquiring Strategic Sense

The acquisition of strategic sense is second in relative importance only to the necessity for a public figure (or figures) to acquire political sense. The logic and practical force of this amplification is commanded by the logical and practical order of the theory of strategy. Even if the armed forces of a polity are organized, commanded, and led in battle by a general blessed in good measure with competent strategic sense that advantageous fact will prove of little value should the country’s policy leadership not be capable of exercising political sense. Military historian Murray, cited earlier, makes the same point, which surely is valid. By and large and to the best of my knowledge, Western, especially American, forces typically fought well enough in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but that combat proficiency could not be converted from tactical advantage into strategic effect, because in none of the three cases was the strategic context readily permissive of such conversion. Those three very modern conflicts attested in abundance to the wisdom in choosing ‘so what?’ as the most necessary of a strategist’s questions.[x] It is all too easy to be misled by the excitement of tactics and even of operations—should tactical behaviour be so directed—into neglecting the superordinate ‘so what’ question that needs be most in command of events.

In this section of the essay I will look closely at just three sources of strategic sense, formal education; the informal education that experience may provide; and individual human nature.

First, in large part, I suspect, because the subject of strategic genius sounds more than a little atavistic, notwithstanding its Clausewitzian authority, and in only slightly lesser measure undemocratic, these days the very notion of identifying apparently extraordinary strategic talent very early in a military career typically is resisted. Relatively high military flyers will be identified, probably entrusted and somewhat tested in professional positions that require a greater exercise of creative initiative than the norm. Always assuming the absence of any culturally deviant professional misbehaviour early in the career, the candidate military ‘genius’ in due course will be subject to some formal, if light, education in the making of strategy. Through a standard process of competitive selection, many countries around the world have staff colleges of varying degrees of scholarly rigor, each of which should produce a small annual class of men (and women also) schooled formally by an education in strategy. The military learn about EWM (Ends, Ways, and Means) and Assumptions, or close variants thereof in the local language.[xi] Such schooling should be a satisfactory way to begin a formal education in strategy, but its severe limitations should soon become apparent to the more perceptive military students. In particular, every conceptual category in the EWM—A formula will be contextually dependent for its exact meaning, while the practical feasibility in any real-world case must depend upon the political common sense both of the home side and of hostile foreign competitors. In other words, the formal structure for strategy-making is bereft of nearly everything of vital significance. There will be some educational utility in providing students with an authoritative, if truly bare, structure for thought, but that is near certain to be so lacking in specific context as to risk a charge of banality. Students can be encouraged, even challenged, by educational provision demanding choice, but upon which historical cases should reliance be placed? Students may well be as likely to mislearn as to learn from their historical forays. The sheer richness of variety in strategic history renders efforts to employ it perilously vulnerable, if not flawed fatally for the purpose of education.

Second, in addition to the benefit that might accrue from some formal education in the theory and historical practice of strategy, there is the enlightenment that should accrue from personal exposure to the real-world pressures, including the physical and moral risks, of actual experience of strategy-making and execution. But, is the candidate military commander more likely to learn useful positive lessons from the experience of high command, as opposed to the possible reinforcement of negative traits already revealed by military failure in the field.[xii] There are many potential reasons for command failure, some of which should not necessarily count heavily against the general in charge. However, generals new or fairly so to the elevated responsibility of generalship, are prone, prudently, not to anticipate that their chain of command will be forgiving of military misfortune. Apportioning blame deserved or otherwise, is a permanent global phenomenon in civil military relations. It cannot simply be assumed that military commanders will be capable of learning positive lessons from the experience of defeat: they might, but they might not. In many historical cases of military defeat, the reasons for that outcome will be eminently contestable. In theory, at least, one potential benefit of some formal education in the making and execution of strategy is that generals who acknowledge the intellectual authority of a formal structure of proper belief, should find such a body of ideas militarily helpful. Although the exercise of military power is, and has to be, only about the political returns that may be secured as a result, military commanders successful in combat find that their civilian masters in policy can prove quite tolerant of some evidence of exuberance and even of some expression of personal political dissent. In fact, there can be practical political value in the public tolerance of an extreme sounding military view. This view can be officially disavowed, but still it may be useful to remind the adversary who has recently been defeated, that we may not always be dominated reliably by well-meaning people who adhere reliably only to reasonable and prudent policy and strategic ideas.

The third and arguably most reliable source of intelligence is the personal preferences and inclinations that confidently can be identified as the policy preferences and inclinations of live politicians. It may be useful to explain matters more bluntly in the following simple terms: a politician, any politician of any persuasion, brings to an international conflict the net yield from his or her personal experience. That experience may or may not be first-hand, but it is certain to be broadly cultural in what it reflects as well as in particular detail that has pressing meaning for the politician in question. Political, which become personal, slights will fester, burn, and could explode in policy démarches for years to come. As a classic example of major policy shift that proceeded almost until the present day without significant policy course correction, it would be hard to identify a clearer case than the recent American commitment to, and performances in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rarely have the concepts of strategic effect and strategic sense been more revealed in their full consequential majesty than was clearly demonstrated inadvertently by the United States in Iraq and to some degree ab extensio, in Syria also. Given that strategy is always about consequences, pre-eminently including those with live and probably enduring political meaning, greater policy prudence should have been anticipated. The first requirement for a successful intervention in the internal affairs of a country in the Middle East is a politically tolerable local agent. He may not be loved universally, but neither should he be a constant source of embarrassment. As much to the relevant point, the agent has to be capable of winning on political terms broadly likely to be locally acceptable.

A leading American and British difficulty with their conduct of warfare in Iraq and Syria (US only) is that they are uncertain whom to support through their limited interventionary effort. If we should have learnt anything from our interventions in Third-World countries, it ought to have been concerning the necessity to achieving a locally tolerable level political leadership. With that particular prudent thought in the forefront of our countries’ policy determination, there should be little difficulty, beyond domestic First-World embarrassments, about acceptance of the following by way of prudent policy guidance. Specifically, if we do not really know what we are doing, to whom, or why, we should not be doing it. There is much to be said in praise of providing timely military assistance to local regimes who find themselves in dire need of assistance that can only come from abroad. However, there is nothing praiseworthy about the support that may be offered and accepted with no predictable, let alone confidently anticipated, political consequences. In political case after case the United States, and sometimes Britain also, have acted militarily even in the plain absence of compelling evidence that suggests a strong likelihood of consequential political success.

In South Vietnam the United States backed what proved to be a failing non-Communist cause, while in Iraq and Afghanistan variants of local failure only slightly less appealing politically with Third-World intervention have been played. There has been no great political and strategic mystery in any of these cases of failure. The United States lacked the necessary cultural, including political, grasp of what moved local Third-World affairs. To restate the adverse claim directly, the United States (largely) did not understand sufficiently what it needed to do, or how difficult it could be to attempt seriously to do it in Vietnam, and over twenty years later, in the 2000s in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It can be all too easy to forget that strategy rarely consists of a simple idea or answer, or even one cluster of such that can be created and subsequently revered as in all but sacred texts. It is helpful to think of strategy as being functionally somewhat analogous to a vehicle with a number of working parts, some of which are more critically important than others. Most important of all are the intentions of the driver. Where does he want to go? The rough parallel between a vehicle and strategy is helpful because it requires us to distinguish clearly between driver and the machine to be driven. Typically, the expert contributing authors, and many readers of, Infinity Journal, understand that strategy has several interacting parts, each with an important role to play. Strategic sense, the conceptual center of gravity of this essay, may require considerable intellectual self-discipline on the part of the policy makers in the greater powers, who can easily be misled by their state’s relative facility of essentially tactical action, when strategic sense most likely is not on the menu. It can be a challenge to attempt to explain that strategic success requires some flexibility, much adaptability, and a secure understanding of the complex and multifaceted nature of strategy. When looking for evidence of strategic sense: it is strictly necessary to examine political objectives; explore possible alternative methods to achieve (some of) them; and identify the military and extra-military means, when applied, that could possibly deliver significant advantage (with an acceptably close variant of victory among them). Foundational for those rather demanding requirements is a necessity for a sweep of assumptions, in order to capture any beliefs that are so widespread and indeed commonplace that they may well escape notice altogether or, of course, provision of evidence!

So demanding can the needs of strategy appear to be that one might wonder at the courage, or folly, of any political leadership, in employing it. Most wars in strategic history have not been waged in order to achieve an approximation to complete victory, but the terms and conditions of the post war context being strictly a matter only for the victor to decide at his discretion. Typically, wars do not conclude with the utter ruin, if not necessarily destruction, of the loser. It is commonplace for there to be a post war settlement that has to be negotiated to some degree, as contrasted with simply being dictated. It is unusual for a losing side to be unable to extract at least a minimum list of claimed necessities. In fact, even when there is a clear winner and a clear loser, the victor may wish to conceal the extent of his victory in order not to antagonize the more belligerent of the loser’s surviving soldiery unnecessarily. Twice in the twentieth century the security services of the British government defeated the IRA (1921 and 1998) and on both occasions attempted with reasonable success to conceal the scale of its victory. Similarly, the undoubted fact of French military victory against the Arab rebels in Algeria by 1962, enabled Paris to afford the former foe an appearance of respect it had not really earnt on the battlefield. Strategy can require not only a population supportive of war, but also, not infrequently, that a domestic public’s demand for peace be met.

Bearing in mind that strategy is all about consequences, it is scarcely surprising that strategic sense, or its opposite, is often not immediately self-evident following apparent military victory.

The most obvious absence from American and British policy towards the Middle East of recent years has been the concept that I have sought to highlight in this essay: strategic sense. How many times does a policy-making, political ideas machine need to be told that when a country is sufficiently alien as to confound our political expectations in key respects, it would be better left to make its own way in world politics, rather than be shepherded towards another political tendency, including our own. It is a little embarrassing for us to admit this undoubted fact, but Western powers have taken military initiatives in the cases of the three countries named here that they (we!) did not understand. When you do not know what you are doing, because the consequences of your impending actions are seriously obscure, the path of wisdom should be one of inaction and only of minimal effort if such cannot prudently be avoided entirely.

It cannot be strategically sensible to seek very uncertain political effects consequential from strategic action, if the likely consequences of military action are deeply uncertain. The Gods of Strategy mandate inactivity as the prudent course for policy when politicians do not understand local conditions. Consideration of probable strategic effects should lead inexorably to a Western policy reluctance to risk further involvement in the wake of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. How much failure should be judged necessary to warrant recognition that enough already is too much?


[i] See the important brief article by T. X. Hammes, ‘Assumptions – A Fatal Oversight’, Infinity Journal, 1 (Winter 2010), pp. 4–6.
[ii] M. L. R. Smith, ‘Politics and Passion: The Neglected Mainspring of War’, Infinity Journal, Vol. 4, Issue 2 (Fall 2014), pp. 32–6.
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, tr. Michael Howard and Peter Paret 1832–4; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 76.
[iv] See my effort to make some sense of this vitally important, but ultimately frustratingly obscure concept in The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, ch. 5.
[v] This critically significant concept is flagged helpfully in an excellent work of military history by Robert Lyman, The Generals: From Defeat to Victory, Leadership in Asia, 1941–45, London: Constable, 2008, p. 341. Lyman advises that ‘[e]ffective command requires strategic sense’. This concept is not well understood because it is not well enough appreciated as an essential quality required for competent generalship.
[vi] Williamson Murray, War, Strategy and Military Effectiveness, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, ch. 6 ‘History and Strategic Planning’. This is an extraordinarily insightful discussion of a subject that very many professional historians tend to ignore, the relationship between plans and strategy.
[vii] See Jean Edward Smith in Eisenhower in War and Peace, New York: Random House, 2012, chs. 12–13.
[viii] Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, ch. 3.
[ix] EBO is fairly summarily shot in my book, The Strategy Bridge, ch. 5.
[x] On the importance of general utility to a strategist of the ‘so what’ question see Colin S. Gray, Tactical Operations for Strategic Effect: The Challenge of Currency Conversion, Special Operations University, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, 2015, p. 9.
[xi] Henry R. Yarger, Strategy and the National Security Professional: Strategic Thinking and Strategy Formulation in the 21st Century, Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008.
[xii] Amidst a gigantic literature see Robert Pois and Philip Langer, Command Failure in War: Psychology and Leadership, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004, has considerable value, as also in many respects does Martin Van Creveld, Command in War, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

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