Strategy is the business of military professionals, but, far too often, they practice it improperly out of ignorance and lack of experience. The US military continues to struggle with matriculating ready strategic leaders from amongst their most successful tacticians. Adroit responses to the circumstances on the battlefield have not been accompanied by equally savvy responses to the policy logic driving US-led campaigns at the theater-strategic and national levels. As a consequence, operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan have drifted amongst ad hoc measures which have largely been sound tactically but bereft of strategic coherence.
Even as the US unexpectedly began two extended campaigns, the focus remained on optimizing our means and methods on the ground, getting our inputs right, instead of reassessing our governing strategies. American military leaders became enamored with the promise of experts as a lifeline to escape indecision regarding the battles it found itself tangled in. Too many officers failed to discern the proper contribution of functional experts and to not mistake the experts’ mastery of facts for strategic understanding. For at least two decades, US military strategy has been adrift because senior leaders have not understood strategy in theory as well as in practice and thus have not put expertise in its appropriate role.[i]
The Bush Administration’s response to 9/11 created operational imperatives in the form of two wars that allowed senior leaders to abrogate their strategic responsibility of ensuring operations solved the necessary problem, not just those problems that were merely relevant to the national interests at stake. The counterinsurgency doctrine articulated in US Army Field Manual 3-24 encouraged such behavior and eventually subsumed strategy by articulating a rationale for open-ended campaigns. It ultimately proved to be an incomplete guide for the coalition campaigns, precluding serious introspection at the highest levels about the direction of those military adventures and the wisdom of continuing them. The US military’s infatuation with new ways of war and fervent acceptance of uncertainty as the great menace of our time is an extension of the underlying logic behind Field Manual 3-24. Such reckless modernism reflects a collective failure to apply strategic thought. It would be too strong to call this ongoing failure to be a dereliction of duty, but it is a problem that demands an intense discourse amongst military professionals about the substance of strategy malpractice and solutions for reducing it, if not to eliminate it.[ii]
That strategy malpractice occurs at all should be of great concern to everyone. Errors in judgment are forgivable given the dynamism and complexity of war, but blunders in practice stemming from theoretical ignorance and analytic ineptitude are less so. The US military, in the tradition articulated by Samuel Huntington, prides itself in providing expert advice to policymakers on the application of military power. Huntington argued that military professionals should be granted autonomy within their areas of expertise in exchange for apolitical behavior. His seminal work on the subject, Soldier and the State, was embraced by American military professionals as the authoritative articulation of their status in society. Huntington’s book defends the professional sovereignty of uniformed experts to advise and manage the development, articulation, and conduct of tactics and strategy. While such autonomy is a rational basis for civil-military relations, the mediocrity of strategic advice should raise important questions about whether military professionals are sufficiently competent to fulfill their compact with society. If professional sovereignty is to serve a common good and avoid merely creating a parochial preserve, American military professionals must have a firm grasp over the fundamentals of strategy in theory and in practice.[iii]
The practice of strategy is challenging for many reasons, but chief among them is the entry cost to participation. The fundamentals of strategic appraisal and planning require devoted preparation and consistent meditation to achieve competency, and they run against the grain of military conventions. Rising leaders in the military often mistakenly assume that they can acquire the essential aspects of strategic thinking by focused study without making fundamental adjustments to the way in which they see problems, understand context, and without changing the tools they apply to understanding and solving problems. Successive career advancements and the organizational culture of the military create and reinforce that assumption and mature it into a conviction. It is the belief that strategy is simply a matter of contending with large-scale, national-level, problems within the context of political bargaining that keeps the strategy bridge, which links policy to operations, in perpetual disrepair.[iv]
Strategy malpractice in the military has been the product of three tendencies: a failure to understand the unique character of the strategic, the misappropriation of history, and a desire to implement optimal solutions. In longstanding institutions, the fundamental tension that hinders intelligent strategy is between the functional expert, who often represents the institution’s raison d’être, and the strategic planner, who ought to be focused on the imperatives of the institutional environment, rather than incumbent equities in the organization. Yet, officers are often not prepared in their careers for the task of moderating the discourse between expert and strategist in a time-sensitive decision-making environment. Military leaders are of necessity selected for advancement early in their careers, based on their capacity to rapidly grasp a situation and make decisions for action. This profile often produces excellent tacticians who are well-prepared to deal with tangible issues in a timely manner, but it is cognition of a different kind than that which is required for problems where the very terms of conversation lack fixed meaning. Fundamental ideas, such as security, have clearly articulated definitions in tactical doctrine, but can be frustratingly malleable in the domains of policy and strategy.[v]
Strategic appraisal and planning are of a different nature than the tactical problem solving approaches to which senior military leaders often revert. Most leaders recognize the complex nature of strategic problems which defy prediction, but, too often, they simplistically poach theoretical concepts from the social sciences to deal with uncertainty and find a bridge that might carry them from indecisive tactical actions and enduring national interests. The results have been plans and directives that are merely relevant, if that, and unnecessary to the essential policy aims we nominally ascribe to succeed, leading to contradictions and mission creep. As a consequence, military policies and plans often default to the intuitive and familiar, rather than to the option best calibrated to the realities of the problem.[vi]
In addition to misapprehending strategy’s nature, many officers are ill-prepared to understand a historical narrative that is filled with siren calls to those convinced of their own wisdom. Those who see history as an easy companion will discover in the end that it offers many illusions upon which to shipwreck the lives of rulers and nations. To the sober-minded historian, the facts of history offer essential points of reference that guide and inform but are never mistaken for truth. Fact, taken simplistically, is the drug of fools and the weapon of knaves, becoming great impediments to understanding and wisdom. It is through such error that fortunes are wasted on ambition, and lives are crushed for the sake of illusory dogmas.
Confusing strategy with politics and the misapprehension of history are ultimately problems given full expression through individual aptitude and education. In the organizational context, where competing voices and personalities determine the course of thought and decision, strategy is about navigating the sub-optimal path most likely to achieve a desired aim and avoiding the finely engineered, optimal path that is doomed to failure or wandering. This vision of strategy is often tritely referred to as “preventing perfect from being the enemy of good enough”, but the substance of strategy in practice is about more than a simplistic recourse to common sense.
Senior military leaders from the national, to the theater-level, can shun the allure of asinine perfection by understanding the imperatives which necessarily serve relevant policy aims and distinguishing them from the pressing demands of a battle or campaign. Merely accepting what is deemed “good enough” and operating on commander’s intuition is a recipe for endemic mediocrity. Infusing tactical actions with power words like “atmospherics” or “strategic” does nothing to ensure that actions on the ground have any necessary or meaningful contribution to what matters to the national interest. The presumption that contextualizing actions with political-social concepts somehow bridges the deep divide that separates policy from tactics has been a chief culprit in ill-conceived campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan by both military and civilian leaders. Few things could be as misleading as believing that war and politics are of the same nature (i.e., the militarization of nation – and state – building) or that strategy is the echo of tactical actions heard in the media by policymakers (i.e., a high-profile bombing is a “strategic event”). The problem with misunderstanding strategy’s nature is not merely cognitive dissonance. There are real consequences if generals and appointed officials do not understand the nature of strategy and apply narrow, or shallow, lessons from history to managing the conduct of military operations.[vii]
Tactically-minded leaders, thinking sequentially, respond to the dynamism and ironies of strategy by focusing on the tangibles of units in the field and by extolling the virtues of adaptability and initiative. They do this because the bias towards action and demonstrable results requires exactly this sort of approach to problems, and it can often be the best approach available to a commander or senior military advisor. However, the imperative of units in action drives appraisals and plans to look inward and increasingly give perfunctory attention to policy aims. Such a tactical focus cannot but lead to such an outcome because adaptability and initiative, in the strategic realm, represent an abrogation of strategy in favor of glorified crisis management. Whether based on brigades in the attack or so-called human terrain teams, organizational nimbleness based on information dominance is unlikely to produce meaningful gains against a competent and capable, or merely resilient, enemy. As the Wehrmacht demonstrated during the Second World War, adapting to circumstances and seizing the initiative may merely delay the inevitable demise of a strategically bankrupt campaign.[viii]
It is the tactical bias of US military culture that leads to the reign of experts in operational and strategic planning. The dominant voice changes with the issues of the day, but the prediliction for action demands the surety and focus of experts rather than the ambiguities of strategic advice which call for measured action and oftentimes a view towards events well beyond the tenure of the commander. Because experts focus on the tangible and proximate, they typically do not see the opportunity costs they impose on the pursuit of strategic aims over many years and presume on the permanence of key aspects of the political or strategic environment. Commanders at the operational and strategic-level of command, following expert advice, can work very well against the long-term interests of the nation, and of their nation’s partners, by aggressively pursuing measures of effectiveness defined by functional experts.[ix]
This article is not a condemnation of functional expertise, but it is intended as a call for leaders to make themselves smarter consumers of expert advice in formulating and implementing strategy. Senior leaders that do not understand the nature of strategy, or how to discern the proper utility of history, can scarcely hope to sort through the cacophony of voices from above, as well as from below, that promise a straighter path to victory. Ill-informed tacticians, focused on getting “the inputs right”, are drawn to the notion that ends-ways-means can be applied as a formula thus confusing the complex for the merely complicated.[x] It is in misunderstanding the nature of strategy that functional expertise becomes dangerous because it facilitates the leaps in logic that strategy-as-formula requires.
The triune formulation of strategy certainly does not prevent the voice of the strategist from becoming lost in the more enticing suggestions of experts with their facts and trends. It is in situations where meaningful strategic victory is unattainable that this becomes most critical and, ironically, this is also when it is the hardest for strategic advisors to be heard. It is hard to imagine that the US military would ever willfully commit suicide as the Wehrmacht did in 1945, but one could conceive of a vested force driven by ambition and expert bias binding their nation to campaigns and wars for which there is no necessary benefit to the national interest. It is the deceitfulness of expert knowledge that leads aggressive and intelligent leaders to believe that the next success will bring what prior years, with their investments in blood and treasure, failed to deliver. Unless such confidence is grounded in solid strategic calculus, it is only a mirage.[ix]
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Army, Department of Defense, or any other organization of the US Government.
[i] G. Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population Centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters 39 (Autumn 2009): 7.
[ii] J. Gavin, “What’s the Matter with Being a Strategist?” Parameters 40 (Winter 2010-11): 82-84, and D. Porch, Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), 295-313.
[iii] W. Markel, “The Limits of American Generalship: The JCS’s Strategic Advice in Early Cold War Crises,” Parameters 38 (Spring 2008): 20; P. Yingling, “A Failure in Generalship,” Armed Forces Journal (May 2007): http://www.armedforcesjournal.com/a-failure-in-generalship [accessed 27 April 2014]; C. Moore, “What’s the Matter with Being a Strategist (Now)?” Parameters 39 (Winter 2009-10): 7-8.
[iv] Stephen J. Gerras and Leonard Wong, Changing Minds in the Army: Why It is So Difficult and What to Do about It (Carlisle, Pa.: US Army War College, October 2013), 12, 15, and 19-23; L. Wong, Strategic Leadership Competencies (Carlisle, Pa.: SSI, 2003), 3, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=382 [accessed 26 April 2014]; and C. Gray, “The Strategist as Hero,” Joint Force Quarterly 62 (Fall 2011): 43.
[v] L. Wong, Strategic Leadership Competencies, 11, and Moore, “What’s the Matter with Being a Strategist (Now)?,” 16.
[vi] Gray, “The Strategist as Hero,” 1.
[vii] A. Elkus, “Beyond Strategy as a Means to an End,” Infinity Journal 3 (Winter 2014): 14; C. Gray, “Politics, Strategy, and the Stream of Time,” Infinity Journal 3 (Winter 2014): 5-6.
[viii] Gray, “The Strategist as Hero,” 42-43.
[ix] Gray, “The Strategist as Hero,” 44.
[x] David H. Petraeus, interview by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Washington Post, 15 August 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/15/AR2010081501515_pf.html
[xi] A. Elkus, “Beyond Strategy as a Means to an End,” 11-13, and Gray, “Politics, Strategy, and the Stream of Time,” 6, and Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics,” 15.