Military Strategy Magazine  /  "The Strategy Bridge"  /  

The Reluctant Theorist: Colin Gray and the Theory of Strategy

The Reluctant Theorist: Colin Gray and the Theory of Strategy The Reluctant Theorist: Colin Gray and the Theory of Strategy
To cite this article: Wirtz, James, “The Reluctant Theorist: Colin Gray and the Theory of Strategy”, Infinity Journal, The Strategy Bridge Special Edition, March 2014, pages 13-15.

Colin Gray is a reluctant theorist. He is acutely aware of the achievements of the great strategic thinkers that he admires and that the objectives he set for The Strategy Bridge might in fact turn out to be a bridge too far. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he recognizes that he can only follow in the footsteps of Carl Von Clausewitz, which to his mind turns any effort to trump the Prussian philosopher into a fool’s errand. Anyone who is familiar with Gray’s work also knows that he is adept at identifying the flaws in competing efforts to update, enhance or modify the insights offered by the great theorists he embraces. He is in fact an expert at highlighting how logical flaws, an inattention to historical detail or a focus on one element of strategy at the expense of other critical considerations, stymie such efforts. One cannot escape the impression that Gray senses that the effort to develop a general theory of strategy comes dangerously close to heresy and that heretics can be torched for their efforts. Armed with only his intellect and a mastery of the literature, he has burned a few himself.

Parsimony comes at a price and Gray is reluctant to pay that price. Every explanatory claim, relationship or premise he offers is honed to a razor’s edge so that it is finely balanced and completely qualified. No theoretical statement claims too much or too little, no point is left untested, no relevant context is ignored. He goes to great pains to define terms and to specify the scope of his inquiry, only in the end to admit that we lack a metric to identify exactly where some concept sits on the continuum of ideas that constitute strategy. Context and practice makes it difficult to find conceptual clarity at the margins. Colin’s great gift is thus his cross to bear. He understands and can actually specify how just about everything is related in some way to just about everything else when it comes to making strategy, and that it is often some unrecognized political, economic, social or military consideration that emerges among a myriad of factors that dooms the best laid plans to failure. He can see the big picture, but that makes it even harder for him to explain the art of strategy in a way that has immediate practical utility. Gray traffics in nuance and the most exquisite distinctions. He is loathe to offer unqualified pronouncements or to leave his students to squabble about the details. Theory does not come easily to a mind like this.

So what chasm has our reluctant theorist actually bridged? What is the essence of this theory of strategy? I will take a stab at providing a few parsimonious observations about The Strategy Bridge; Colin Gray has provided the insight.


The First Chasm: The Dialectic of War and Conflict

Strategy: devising a way to use available political, economic, military, social and cultural resources to alter the range of political options available to an opponent in a favorable way, is an extraordinarily challenging task. Ironically, it is an especially challenging task for politicians, policymakers and officers. At the heart of the problem is an inability or unwillingness to accept the dialectical nature of political or military conflict and to instead embrace a sort of “linear approach” or “administrative” view of war. War is a duel: the outcome is determined by the interaction of competing wills, politics, policies and militaries. But military establishments and their political leaders often tend to concentrate on their part in the conflict, ignoring the opponent’s motivations or the fact that it is the “interaction” in conflict that drives outcomes. Throughout his career, Gray has highlighted the pitfalls produced by this linear approach to war and by implication to strategy, but this failing continues to manifest, often in insidious ways, among people who should know better, among strategists.

This lack of strategic awareness and inability to recognize and act on a dialectical view of conflict also runs deep among scholars, who often focus on one side of conflict’s dialectic to explain events. In the aftermath of strategic surprise and intelligence failure, for instance, scholars quickly take up the task of explaining why some unlucky intelligence community or defense establishment failed to anticipate a significant military or political fait accompli. Their explanations generally focus on why organizational, analytic, informational or cognitive failings led one party to be surprised by an attack, not on why the attacker was attracted to launching an extremely risky enterprise in the first place. Even less effort is given to explaining how the pre-attack motivations of the aggressor and victim might actually generate conditions conducive to deterrence failure, strategic surprise and war. Surprise attack is a phenomenon produced by the interaction of at least two parties in conflict; to understand this phenomenon one would need a theory of surprise that can capture that interaction. To understand and avoid deterrence failure, surprise attack and war, one has to understand how the interaction between victim and aggressor creates a set of conditions that makes intelligence failure likely.[i] Strategists who fail to understand that the interactions among adversaries shape their circumstances and opportunities, are unlikely to devise strategies that advance their interests while constraining their competitor’s options.

Dialectical thinking – a strategist’s approach to war – is not only reflected in the advice Gray offers to strategists, but in the way he presents strategic theory itself. For example, he notes that brilliant strategy is not a necessary condition for victory in war. Instead, even a weak strategist, ceteris paribus, can triumph over a more mediocre adversary. Strategy’s dialectic reflects the notion of “relativity,” an idea that permeates Gray’s work but is often lost in the way other observers depict conflict. When other scholars identify new weapons systems or technologies (i.e., “silver bullets”), or sure-fire strategies or new dominant realms of conflict (e.g., space, cyberwar), as a clear path to victory, they often fail to qualify such assertions with the opponent in mind. For example, the suggestion that Mao Zedong’s People’s War represents a revolutionary and unstoppable approach to modern warfare must be judged against the quality of the force the People’s Liberation Army faced — Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang units, which never achieved much combat effectiveness even after decades of continuous war and an outpouring of U.S. material and technical support. By contrast, Mao’s peasant armies suffered devastating casualties when they encountered competent U.S. units during the Korean War. Strategy is relative.[ii]

Much of The Strategy Bridge demonstrates how an awareness of conflict’s dialectic must inform strategists – the effort to account for and manipulate the outcome of this dialectic is the basis of all strategy. In this sense, Gray reveals a constant and universal element of our reality, even though he repeatedly cautions the (maybe less perceptive) reader that the factors and forces that have a dominant influence on conflict’s dialectic vary from time to time. Gray is very careful to note that there are no strategic “silver bullets” when it comes to conflict and that the exact relationships among the strategic considerations he surveys, at least on the margins, tend to be historically specific. Theories of strategy that privilege certain instruments or methods of war as transformational or permanently dominant – counter-insurgency, information operations, air power, cyber war, space power, etc. – are both misguided and misleading. Here too Gray fights an uphill battle because “focused” strategic theories are parsimonious, reassuring and pleasing, at least to the community that possesses the weapons system or type of operation championed. By contrast, the weapon wielded by true strategists is strategy; they strive to sense and appreciate conflict’s dialectic in all its manifestations.


The Second Chasm: Politics

The effort to account for and manipulate politics, in both its domestic and international manifestations, is the Achilles heel of strategy. Because war is ultimately about politics, Clausewitz would suggest that politicians have to make the final judgments about strategy because they possess the skills and experience needed to assess what is necessary, and to some extent achievable, in the realm of politics. Nevertheless, many elected officials lack the expertise to judge or even understand the requirements and potential course of the strategies, operations and tactics advocated by their military subordinates. All politics is local, so most politicians’ careers focus on issues that are profoundly domestic – provision of various services, employment and economic policy, government entitlements, social equity, etc. Their direct military experience, which usually occurs during their youth, is usually tactical in nature and highly idiosyncratic.[iii] Dwight Eisenhower, whose military experience was both profoundly political and strategic, is the exception, not the rule.

By contrast, most military officers are never asked to make strategic, let alone political, judgments about the use of force. They initially become experts in executing tactics or operating particular weapons systems or service administrative procedures. Most end their careers in positions where they focus on developing combined arms operations, integrating and de-conflicting service preferences and capabilities (joint operations), helping to run their own service, or helping Defense Ministry officials administer the defense enterprise. Officers who excel at these tactical, operational or administrative tasks and progress through the “idealized” career paths championed by their own service simply find themselves one day responsible for politically protecting their service’s slice of the budgetary pie, or offering strategic advice to politicians. Military career progression virtually guarantees that the officer occupying some billet is a neophyte – this is also true for those who are asked to develop strategy, i.e., to assess how war or the threat of war can be used to achieve political objectives.

Occasionally, officers who intuitively grasp politics, or who have a knack for strategy, occupy positions where they can put these talents to good use. Their backgrounds, however, tend to be both unusual and unsanctioned. The fact that they might have some prior relevant experience or an appropriate education is actually an impediment to career advancement because it forces them to deviate from an operational focus that facilitates promotion to a higher rank. If their talents are not recognized by senior officers at an early stage of their career, so that they can be protected, they can fall by the wayside because promotion boards favor conformists, not iconoclasts.[iv] Gray devotes a good deal of attention to debating what type of education would be most helpful to the strategist, but what he fails to realize is that the problem is more fundamental. In terms of the U.S. military, career progression emphasizes operational experience over education, especially education related to understanding strategy or politics. One might sum up this general attitude among promotion boards as “learning is good, doing is better.”

Strategy thus occurs in the context of modern civil-military relations, where both sides largely focus on their own concerns and develop different types of expertise until they are forced by circumstance to think seriously about strategy. When the chasm of politics looms, two types of mistakes often occur. Politicians can ask for specific types of military operations without knowing fully the scope, nature, requirements and ramifications of the actions they are about to take. In other words, military operations have their own unique logic, and sometimes politicians fail to understand that logic. By contrast, officers sometimes fail to recognize how key tactical or operational considerations and requirements embodied in some evolution will actually undermine political success. When this occurs, even victory on the battlefield can impede the achievement of political objectives.

Gray continually warns the reader that there is no natural harmony between different levels of war or in the effort to use, or threaten to use, force to constrain the political options of an opponent in a way that suits our interests. Strategy is the art of ensuring that our political objectives, and the means we select to obtain them, actually work in unison towards a common goal. One might also suggest that the first objective of strategy is “to do no political harm.”


The Strategy Bridge

The 21 Dicta of Strategy developed by Gray provide a description of these chasms, with an eye towards correcting more or less common misperceptions and mistakes when it comes to the art of strategy. The Strategy Bridge is more about the chasm that needs crossing than it is about building the span itself. Of course Colin, being Colin, has much to say about the factors that come into play in bridge construction, and his musings about the philosophy of science, history, strategy, war and peace are insightful, perceptive and entertaining. But, these are embellishments, qualifications, observations and distinctions that sometimes add to and sometimes detract from the fundamental objective achieved by Gray. Ironically, Clausewitz seems to have worked in a similar fashion. First came a series of observations on a range of details and relationships; upon revision came the theoretical insights. Maybe Clausewitz was also a reluctant theorist. Or is it only a coincidence that The Strategy Bridge resembles On War in both style and substance?

The Strategy Bridge achieves its objective by offering a general theory of strategy. In other words, it offers an empirically grounded explanation of strategy, much in the same way Clausewitz offered an empirically grounded explanation of war, or Kenneth Waltz offered an empirically grounded explanation of international politics.[v] Although normative implications can be derived from all of these works, these authors do not intend to tell the reader how to make, or to explain how states actually make, strategy, war or foreign and defense policy. Instead, they focus on explaining the phenomenon itself, by describing the sometimes hidden or even quite obvious forces, dynamics, opportunities and challenges that shape our reality. They boil down our circumstances to their essence so that we can understand our situation, what interests and forces are in play, and gain some insight into how we can better our position to achieve our objectives. They are attempting to tell us how the world works, not how to work the world.


[i] The interested reader should turn to James J. Wirtz, “Theory of Surprise,” in Richard K. Betts and Thomas G. Mahnken (eds.) Paradoxes of Strategic Intelligence: Essays in Honor of Michael I. Handel (London: Frank Cass, 2003), pp. 101-116.
[ii] James J. Wirtz, “Politics with Guns: A Response to T.X. Hammes’ ‘War Evolves into the Fourth Generation’,” in Terry Terriff, Aaron Karp and Regina Karp (eds.), Global Insurgency and the Future of Armed Conflict (New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 47-51.
[iii] Early in his political career, John F. Kennedy was fond of telling audiences that he became a war hero when “they sank my boat.”
[iv] Stephen P. Rosen, Winning the Next War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
[v] Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1979).