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Thoughts on Colin Gray’s Strategy Bridge

Thoughts on Colin Gray’s Strategy Bridge Thoughts on Colin Gray’s Strategy Bridge
To cite this article: Murray, Williamson, “Thoughts on Colin Gray’s Strategy Bridge”, Infinity Journal, The Strategy Bridge Special Edition, March 2014, pages 4-7.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.[i]

Strategy is the hot buzzword in Washington at present. It appears to be on the minds of the myriads of bureaucrats who make up the vast arms of America’s national security establishment.[ii] Their efforts include the “National Strategy for Maritime Security, “the National Strategy for Homeland Security,” the “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” and the “National Military Strategy,” among a host of others. In reality, these statements are completely useless. At best, they represent bureaucratic obfuscation in which immense numbers of words spell out no path to the future and refuse to discuss any controversial issues. At worst, they are shallow attempts to justify the purchase of expensive weapons systems in a time of scarcity in defense budgets. Such strategic assessments make no controversial arguments; they rest on no theoretical foundations; they entirely ignore the historical past; and they make no statements that suggest that the United States, the Department of Defense, and senior policy makers are going to have to make hard choices over the course of coming decades. Above all, they reflect a culture that is ahistorical and almost entirely ignorant of “the other.”[iii]

In effect those who make policy or who write about it live in a gated community, the United States Department of Defense, and they believe that most of the rest of the world accepts the same liberal principles to which they pay homage.[iv] About the only thing that one can say in the defense of those attempting to find a strategy is that they at least recognize that the United States has been without a strategic framework since the ending of the Cold War. Astonishingly, some do not believe the United States needs a strategy to deal with the complex challenges it confronts. As one senior “strategic thinker [?] and defence analyst” recently commented to Professor Colin Gray “strategy [is] only needed by the weak.”[v] But then one might have thought that the wreckage left by U.S. political and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where no strategic thinking has been discernable, might have disabused those with such a view of defense policy of such notions.[vi] There are in fact no such indications.

Professor Gray has now stepped into this non-debate over strategy with a wonderful book: The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. It is Professor Gray at his best… and worst. At its heart lies a deeply perceptive argument that shines a sharp and clear light on the problem of strategy. As always, he presents insights and nuggets of thought that take one’s breath away. Nevertheless, at times he is verbose, repetitive with long laundry lists, and too clever by half, as he has been all too often in his many and various works. But one must forgive Professor Gray his idiosyncrasies. He has written an extraordinarily important book that challenges those who think about strategy to reconsider their subject. Whatever its stylistic imperfections, The Strategy Bridge represents a major contribution to the education and the thinking of strategists, military as well as civilian, not only in the present, but especially in the future.

Nevertheless, The Strategy Bridge will be of little use for those who are making strategic sausage in the Pentagon or the National Security Council at present. They will certainly, given their proclivities and how little time they have available to keep the wheels of bureaucracy spinning, have no time for such a work. The Strategy Bridge is indeed a difficult read, but then it is dealing with a complex and difficult subject. However, it should be of enormous use to those involved in security studies, both as students and those who teach the subject. It might even be of use to the students in America’s institutions of professional military education, if their faculties and their administrators ever became interested in such study, or their institutions actually were to teach the subject of strategy in depth.[vii]

In sum The Strategy Bridge represents an educational tool that can prepare and extend the minds of those who may, at some time in the future, find themselves responsible for guiding or advising the nation’s leaders in the complex processes involved in strategic decision making. But it is not a book for those involved in on-the-job training at the National Security Council or in the bowels of the Pentagon. Professor Gray has not given us a work that is reducible to the PowerPoint slides so beloved by those who inhabit the various defense agencies of the United States and which play such a role in muddying America’s approach to strategic issues.[viii]

The best that those who teach or write about strategy can hope to achieve is to prepare their students or readers for the interactive, ambiguous, and uncertain world with which the strategist must deal. Professor Gray quotes a passage from Clausewitz that epitomizes what he is attempting to do:

Theory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material and plowing through it, but will find it ready to hand and in good order. It is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self education, not to accompany him to the battlefield, just as a wise teacher guides and stimulates a young man’s development, but is careful not to lead him by the hand for the rest of his life.[ix]

For his part Professor Gray is specific about what a theory of strategy can and cannot do: “The general theory of strategy, however it is presented – mingled in a historical narrative (Thucydides), all but PowerPointed cryptically (Sun Tzu), or more than a little entangled in a somewhat challenging philosophical exposition (Clausewitz) – can only educate, it cannot instruct with specific advice for today.”[x]

What makes Professor Gray’s work unusual is the fact that, like Clausewitz and unlike most American political scientists, he grounds his theory in historical examples.[xi] Moreover, he points out what most historians ignore at the peril of their accounting of the past. Invariably the outcome, which we know, prejudices the historical judgment and lessons that all too many commentators draw from the past. It is all too easy for the historian to leave out the ambiguities and uncertainties that cloak the decision-making process.

In the past those ambiguities and uncertainties made decision making just as difficult for strategists and policy makers in the past as it is for those who make policy and strategy in the present. Thus, first rate strategic history consistently emphasizes the complexities and ambiguities that policy makers and strategists confronted in the past, but such histories are very much the exception rather than the rule.[xii] In other words to be useful, history must present a non-linear depiction of events with full attention paid to the unexpected, chance, friction, uncertainties, and unintended effects. This harsh reality, Professor Gray understands in a fashion that too many of his colleagues in the academic world do not.

Not surprisingly, at least for this reader, Gray reserves particular praise for Clausewitz and Thucydides in their examination of the issues involved in strategy. His admiration, like mine, rests on the ability of those two great minds to draw complex understanding from the historical record. As Clausewitz noted, only history can provide the basic framework for constructing a theory of war. For Gray it is much the same for strategy, for only history can inform the strategist about how he must think about the future. As this writer noted several years ago:

Without that basic understanding of how the present has evolved through a perspective on the historical and cultural uniqueness of their nation’s position as well as those of others, strategists have no way of understanding where they stand. If strategists do not know where they stand in the present, then any road to the future will do, as it has done in the past – all too often with disastrous consequences. A perceptive understanding of the present based on historical knowledge is the essential first step for thinking about the future.[xiv]

So what is the strategy bridge, then? Shortly after we had completed the three volume Military Effectiveness study for Andrew Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment, Allan Millett and this author held a long conversation on an area that we found it difficult to conceptualize and about which we could see little useful commentary by either historians or political scientists. That area had to do with the translation and transmission of ideas and conceptions from the policy-making world where grand strategy is made, to the strategists who find themselves charged with the conduct of military operations. It is that difficult passage, the bridge between those who cast grand strategy and the world of politics on one side and the world of the military strategist practitioner on the other, that is the heart of Colin Gray’s intellectual journey.

Above all the strategy bridge is not built of stone; it is not an engineering project; and it is not a theory that exists in the world of abstract truths. As Professor Gray notes in his opening chapter,

This idea of the strategy bridge, in common with possible alternative metaphors, is open to challenge by pedants. For example, a material bridge is a passive construction to be used simply by traffic that is usually, but not always, two way. The strategy bridge, however, is not passive, at least it should not be. The strategists who hold the bridge are tasked with the generally inordinately complex and difficult mission of translating political purpose, or policy, into feasible military, and other, plans. Theirs is the task of turning one currency – military (or economic, or diplomatic, and so forth) power – into quite another (desired political consequences).[xv]

What makes such transmission and creation at the same time so difficult lies in the harsh reality that the strategist lives entirely in a non-linear world, where constant change provides the context within which he or she must work. War itself has a way of completely altering the context within which a conflict occurs. War may be a continuation of politics by other means, as Clausewitz suggested, but its violence and murderous nature invariably insure that it will alter the strategic equation in unexpected ways. In fact, not only do we change during the conduct of a war both in our strategic aims as well as our conduct of operations, but so do our opponents. And no matter how quickly we may adapt to the conditions raised at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of the war, our opponents will adapt as well and more often than not in a fashion that we do not expect.[xvi]

Above all, the enemy always gets a vote. Invariably, he will choose avenues and paths that surprise us. His forces will often turn out to be far more tenacious and capable than our intelligence has estimated. And there will be the invariable impact of chance, Thucydides’ tyche, to wreck the best-laid plans, not to mention friction in the conduct of operations. One should also not underestimate the potential impact of incompetence to affect the outcome of what appeared to be well-planned and thought-out operations. Here, the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli springs to mind. As Winston Churchill remarked, “the terrible ifs accumulate.”[xvii] And so in its disastrous mishandling at the tactical and operational levels, the Gallipoli campaign ensured that there was no real alternative but for the British and Dominion armies to dig the Germans out of their lairs on the Western Front with the resulting terrible slaughter on the Western Front that was to last for the next three years.[xviii]

Effective strategy is essential to guide a nation’s military to the successful achievement of its tasks, whether they be defensive or offensive. This is the heart of Professor Gray’s argument. Only through education and long-term thinking can a strategist prepare himself or herself to adapt to the surprises the future will throw up. How important is strategy and its bridge? In the late 1980s this author and his colleague, Allan Millett, pointed out that if a nation cobbled together an effective strategic approach to its problem and if it possessed sufficient time, it could repair whatever deficiencies existed at the operational and tactical levels.[xix] But if a national leadership got the strategy wrong, then no manner of virtuosity at the tactical and operational levels could overcome the deficiencies at the strategic level.

The Germans present the foremost example of a willful disregard of strategy in both world wars. In the Great War, the chief of the great general staff, Graf Alfred von Schlieffen designed the German war plans for a massive sweep through Belgium in order to outflank the French armies assembling to invade Alsace-Lorraine. On the basis of “military necessity,” he dismissed entirely the fact that such a military operation might bring Britain into the war.[xx] By so doing, he guaranteed that the Germans would lose the Great War.[xxi]

Perhaps the clearest warning to those American policy makers and senior officers who do not believe that the United States needs a strategic framework for addressing the challenges of the future lies in the abysmal record of the German state in the first half of the twentieth century. In the First World War, the Germans to all intents and purposes invented modern tactics. Those adaptations led them from one impressive performance on the battlefield to another. But so constrained was their vision by achieving tactical virtuosity, that General Erich Ludendorff, responsible for ordering the MICHAEL Offensive in March 1918 commented: “I object to the word ‘operation.’ We will punch a hole into [their line]. For the rest we shall see.”[xxii]

Having won an impressive list of battles in the war, but having paid little attention to strategy, the Germans then lost the war. The record of German military strategy in the next war was even worse and in the long-term even more disastrous to the nation’s fate. In August 1938, Germany’s foremost practioners of operational art, Erich von Manstein, wrote to the chief of the general staff that “Hitler has always estimated the political situation correctly” and that it was the army’s duty to follow the Führer. That, Manstein was to do with his fellow generals to the bitter end.

The fate of Germany in its two great wars represents an example to which the American military should pay attention. It should take professional military education far more seriously than it is at present. Not to do so is to risk repeating the mistakes that its senior military leaders made on both the strategic and operational levels in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, and those mistakes represented a repetition of virtually every mistake American policy makers and strategists had made in the Vietnam War and which the British had made in Mesopotamia in 1920.[xxiii]

An old, bedraggled sign in Andrew Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon notes that “there is just so much ignorance that one individual can prevent.” Professor Gray has made another major effort to prove that sign wrong. But I am afraid his effort will fail in the current climate of willful intellectual ignorance both outside and within the American military. But at least he has tried to stem the tide. And for that we should be deeply thankful.


[i] Attributed to the great American philosopher Yogi Berra.
[ii] The latest triumph of that massive structure appears to be the defense budget which it submitted to Congress in February 2014 and which involves major cuts, but at the same time increases overall spending significantly.
[iii] The same can be said of the products of America’s intelligence agencies, which consist of large numbers of bureaucrats who know no foreign languages and are entirely ignorant of the histories of the nations about which they supposedly report.
[iv] For an example of the nonsense swilled out by so-called U.S. defense strategists, see among others Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map, War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century (New York, 2004).
[v] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge, Theory for Practice (Oxford, 2010). P. 116.
[vi] For the impact of such views on those who ran the war in Iraq, see the concluding chapter in Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation in War, For Fear of Change (Cambridge, 2011).
[vii] Only the Naval War College has consistently emphasized the study of Clausewitz and Thucydides, the two thinkers on strategy whom Professor Gray ranks as the most significant, in its curriculum over the past thirty years, while the other war colleges have usually provided only the barest introduction to those two thinkers in the their curricula.
[viii] Robert Gates, in his recent memoirs, recounts his efforts to get the military and civilian staffers to dispense with PowerPoint in their briefings. He admits that these efforts were a complete failure. Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York, 2014), p.
[ix] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ, 1976), p. 141.
[x] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge, Theory for Practice (Oxford, 2010), p. 244.
[xi] He does not use the case study method, which this author used so extensively in three works that he has published on the subject of strategy: see Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, eds., The Making of Strategy, Rulers, States, and War (Cambridge. 1994); Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, eds., The Shaping of Grand Strategy, Policy, Diplomacy and War (Cambridge, 2011); and Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, Successful Strategies, Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge, 2014).
[xii] From this author’s perspective, over the past twenty years only Fred Anderson’s brilliant Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York, 2001) truly meets this standard.
[xiii] Unfortunately, the Naval War College has largely diminished the focus on Thucydides as a theorist of war, turning his case study of the Peloponnesian War into an historical case with no examination of Thucydides’ complex theoretical examination of that fifth century BC conflict. For my approach, written in response to the Strategy and Policy Department’s minimization of Thucydides as a theorist, see Williamson Murray, “Thucydides: Theorist of War,” Naval War College Review, Fall 2013.
[xiv] Williamson Murray, War, Straegy, and Military Effectiveness (Cambridge, 2011), p.16.
[xv] Gray, The Strategy Bridge, p. 7.
[xvi] See in particular for a discussion of this issue in Murray, Military Adaptation in War.
[xvii] Churchill’s comment on the Dardanelles Caampaign,
[xviii] There is considerable argument among historians as to whether an Allied success in Gallipoli would have shortened World War I. It is not worth rehashing all those arguments here, but it is worth noting that what might have been a successful strategy to attack the Central Powers from the south died without being tested in the wreckage of the terrible fighting that took place on the peninsula.
[xix] There are some exceptions in history, the most obvious being 1940. The Western Powers possessed a war winning strategy, but their (was this failure due to timidity or other factors?) failure to undertake serious military operations until the spring of 1940 allowed the Germans to place everything they had on one massive throw of the iron dice and gross French incompetence at the operational level resulted in the catastrophic defeat of the Allied armies in May and June 1940. For a discussion of these issues, see Williamson Murray, The Change in the European Balance of Power, The Path to Ruin (Princeton, NJ, 1984), pp. 310-353.
[xx] For a ground breaking discussion of the impact of “military necessity” on the German conduct of the First World War, see Isabel V. Hull, Absolute Destruction, Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca, NY, 2005).
[xxi] As early as November 1914, the chief of the German general staff, General Erich von Falkenhyn indicated to the German Chancellor, Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg that Germany could no longer win the war. Hull, Absolute Destruction, pp. 215-217.
[xxii] Crown Prince Rupprecht, Mein Tagebuch, vol. 2, ed. By Eugen von Frauenholz (Munich, 1928), p. 372. It is worth noting that punching a hole in the enemy lines had been what the armies on the Western Front had been attempting to do since early 1915 with singular failure. Thus, the German success in achieving that tactical goal in the Michael Offensive represented a considerable success, but it led nowhere operationally or strategically and the exhaustion of German military strength led directly to the complete collapse of the German Army in the fighting at the end of the summer and fall of 1918.
[xxiii] For the latter sorry story see James Aylmer Haldane, The Insurrection in Mesopotamia, 1920 (London. 1922). During the second trimester at the Naval War College, academic year, 2011-2012, I had the students in my elective, all of whom were veterans of the Iraq War, read the Haldane account of the British experiences in confronting the revolt of the tribes in 1920. They were deeply depressed because Haldane’s recounting of his campaign replicated all too closely their own experiences.