Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 4  /  

Why Strategy is Different

Why Strategy is Different Why Strategy is Different
Image: ID 35318276 © Andrei Moldovan |
To cite this article: Gray, Colin S., “Why is Strategy Different,” Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, Summer 2019, pages 4-8.

Introduction: The Mystery of Strategy

I will argue in this essay that strategy differs from other components of national and international security in a way that commonly is hardly recognized. Whereas all politics/policy, operations, and tactics can have a contemporary empirical reality that can be verified, strategy alone is an actuality of the future which will be verifiable only through understanding the consequences of thought and behavior. Strategy can be what is intended today, but its reality can exist strictly only in the future. It must always potentially be a guide or warning for tomorrow.

Only a few commentators and historians have come close to recognizing why the concept of strategy has proved so elusive, even almost evasive. This author has been a student of strategy for more than fifty years, but I must confess that in all that time I failed to seek out with sufficient rigor the core of the challenge that, at long last, I accept in this essay. What I find rather puzzling is the nature of this enquiry. I admit that sufficient light appeared and illuminated what previously had eluded me only fully when it was all but thrust in my face by my need to think more deeply than usual about strategy’s meaning. I needed to draft my book, Theory of Strategy.[i]

I have complained, often probably pedantically, about popular, and much supposedly expert, misuse of the ‘strategic’ adjective. Through frequent abuse the noun, strategy, and inevitably the adjective, strategic, have lost much conceptual integrity. Since Infinity Journal is committed uncompromisingly to the better understanding of strategy, it must be assumed to welcome some fundamental reflection on the subject. An unavoidable problem exists in the minds of those who sincerely do not find the current conceptual vagueness of the subject troubling. Before proceeding further I need to register firmly that in my opinion misunderstanding of strategy, often in the past as also commonly in the present, has been exceedingly painful and expensive. It is improbable that the conceptual habits of generations can or would be turned around, but one can always try.


Military students may strive to resist the idea, but the function of military, even strategic, theory simply is to explain the meaning of thoughts and events. Empirical reality can appear a morass of happenings and possibilities that seems designed to promote confusion. Theory, particularly strategic theory, has been conceived, even elaborated, to help enable us to think clearly, which usually means relatively economically and simply. Probably the most valuable contribution that theory can make to understanding lies in its terse identification of conceptual structure. This task may seem too elementary to detain us for long, but in historical practice many a fine army has failed because it could not function as required by a High Command unduly enamored of its own brilliance.

The beginning of wisdom about military affairs needs to be through holistic appreciation of the actuality of defense preparatiwon and warfare itself. All too understandably, a holistic grasp of events is not to be expected, or required, of the performance of the soldier junior in rank. However, war and its warfare as a whole phenomenon, is apt to call for the full commitment of participants of every rank. Reference to ‘Strategic Corporals’ and the like of recent years has recognized a deep truth about the phenomenon of war. The focus on strategy and strategic in this essay obliges full recognition that should be so obvious almost as seeming too obvious to be worthy of particular notice.

Basic to all contextually specific theories of strategy is the eternal and universal authority recognized as residing in a familiar conceptual mantra. Strategy is expressed with praiseworthy economy to require a careful, if often complex, balance among policy ends, strategic ways, and most probably military means – with the entire exercise seasoned by heavy or light application of pertinent assumptions. When considering the wisdom or otherwise of ventures in statecraft of the more exciting character, what should be easily recognizable is the great irony in the conceptual aid that the wondrous trinity of ends, ways, and means, can provide. That mantra should be of the most fundamental help to harassed political leaders in need of timely advice, though one suspects that any leaders really in need of such education ought to be in some profession other than statecraft. Neither politics nor strategy are sciences. Countries around the world deny the merit in what I have just written. Both Russians and Chinese write and talk of strategy as a science. They are seriously mistaken. Needless to say, perhaps, whether or not readers agree with me must depend critically on what one believes to be the requirements of science, not just science-like, with statistics galore.

Confusingly perhaps there can be important science when phenomena are considered at one level of generality, but assuredly not at another. Furthermore, the variability in detail does not necessarily imply any like variants about the activity. For example, the general truth in the truly essential relations in strategy among ends, ways, and means has only a categorical level of validity; always about reciprocal enablement it is subject to the empirical authority of practical experience. Strategy does not differ from the politics that give it birth, or the warfare in which it may find expression, in any movement it makes or entails. Rather, strategy is alone in needing to reach into the future. The key elements in theory all have at least some contemporary reality: Politics and policymaking are permanent activities; ways will be discovered and conducted probably today or in the near future; means actually will be engaged in threatening and using force.

What distinguishes strategy from politics/policy, operations, and tactics is the fact that it focuses most heavily, possibly solely, upon the course of events anticipated for the future. Current arrangements and engagements may well be chosen according to strategic criteria, though what that should mean, simply, is a focus on tomorrow rather than today.


It is not argued here that considerations of time alone are distinctive about strategy. Naturally the entire phenomenon of conflict has a particular, sometimes variable, temporal dimension. Everything in our universe must occur in time, favourable or otherwise for the enterprise of the day or period. My argument is not that strategy alone has a critically important temporal quality, though that statement is sufficiently true as to warrant respect. The point of importance is not that strategy alone is enabled by the passage of time, that would be incorrect, indeed even ridiculous given what is possible tactically, operationally, and politically, even with temporal assistance of a distinctly explosive order. Think of possible ICBM employment which could be done – I hesitate and decline to say achieved – at intercontinental range. Clear and consistent thinking about strategy tells us that strategic forces, so miscalled, are strategic in their consequences, not in their action. The latter should be understood as tactical, with the possibility of operational art notably problematic in this case. The scope and scale of near certain catastrophe is key to the meaning of strategic nuclear forces. This is what provides the warrant for the ‘strategic’ entitlement of the forces themselves and which the superpowers endorse. What it is about forces officially acknowledged as ‘strategic’, is that one is talking about the passage of time.

It should be needless to say that everything we say and do is to some degree time-bounded. The clock and the calendar are always with us, moreover they always have been regardless of the level of scientific and technological accomplishment of the societies of high contemporary interest. What distinguishes strategy is that it can exist only in, even as, the future.

Strategy is quite alone as a potential contributor of evidence for tomorrow, but not today. The nuclear armed ICBM mentioned above becomes authentically strategic, alas, when we consider the possible, indeed probable, consequences of its use. Popular linguistic use, or misuse, elects to collapse tactics into strategy, when discussion proceeds to consequences of nuclear employment.

What makes strategy different from the other behaviors of particular interest here is a matter of nature rather than of character. All military, political, economic and cultural thought and behaviour eternally and universally, have to occur in the dimension of time. This temporal context is so familiar, even intrusive, that its sheer familiarity can breed what amounts to contempt. Commonly, the high significance of time is not uniformly recognized, or indeed perhaps needed, across the whole board of those who usually contribute to the making of strategy. When writing about strategy it is not unusual for theorists simply to neglect to treat temporal issues. Strategists need always to understand that time ‘lost’ for whatever clutch of reasons, both good and bad, can never be recovered – it is gone forever. This simple, yet fundamentally important point of geo-physical science continues to have high significance for the makers of strategy.

Strategy is by no means unique in its vulnerability to temporal error – for example mud can impede military performance at all levels, tactical, operational, and even therefore strategic. We should not forget that strategic accomplishment always is, indeed can only be, the deserved product of tactical and operational levels of success. Because strategy is all about consequences, the temporal dimension has to be of extraordinary significance. Tactical and even operational levels of assessment can fail, for a while, to reveal deeply unwelcome military news. For example, by December 1941 it should have been plain to see that Nazi Germany and its allies were approximately two million men short of the total required to succeed in the invasion and attempted conquest of the Soviet Union: one million for casualty replacement, and a further million for the force level needed to complete the task intended. The Nazi excellence at the tactical and even operational levels of conflict was, of course, revealed at the strategic and political levels of war to have been a chimera. What proved most lethal to the German way of war in 1941-5, was the duration of very active fatal combat. Germany’s principal error, from which there could be no turning back, let alone recovery, was the assumption that the USSR was akin to a house of cards that would collapse in upon itself when it suffered major military setbacks, let alone disaster. Whether or not this fallacious belief, even if true, would have sufficed to bring down Stalin’s Russia can never be known, because the Wehrmacht failed to inflict irrecoverable damage. What happened, instead, was that the Russians managed to protract the war into a phase where the German enemy lacked the human and mechanical assets to enable the waging of warfare on favourable terms. It was Russian strategy to wage more warfare for longer than the enemy was physically capable of meeting in battle with any prospect of ultimate success.

I do not mean to disparage by implication the growing skill of Russian staffs and generalship. The root of the German problem, however, was quantitative deficiency. Despite commanding an invading army of close to three and a half million men, the attackers fell close to two million short in number.[ii]

Of course it is usually strongly preferable to wage only brief and successful war. Many lands, however, have not been so blessed by circumstance that the wars they are unable to avoid are brief. An important factor in the conduct of lengthy wars should be the opportunity provided by a context of survival to teach how to endure and perhaps gain the time to employ assets productively for ultimate survival. If a polity can survive sundry poor military episodes, as a virtue of necessity it may learn better how to persist and survive. The classic case was the British in 1940. The war was lost in most respects, but crucially not in all. Britain had no realistically credible offensive strategy for victory in the war in Europe. What it did, however, was wage warfare it could hardly lose against the Italians in Libya. It was not much of a contest, but at least the expansive geopolitical successes made for positive news coverage at home in Britain and also in America, where it really mattered. Following the appalling incompetence demonstrated in Flanders (and Norway) in early summer 1940, but then after the truly impressive victory in the Battle of Britain in September.[iii] All that could be done was simply to carry on and hope for notable German errors in politics and strategy: these, of course, duly were done obligingly in abundance, beginning in June 1941 with the Nazi invasion of Russia.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Strategy is not a search for truth, rather ought it to be the product of a responsible assessment of the consequences of tactical and operational behaviour. There is and can be no strategic behaviour, because, sensibly employed, the idea of strategy must only be the action recorded tactically and operationally. Strictly employed, quite literally the ideas of strategic action or effect reflect confusion on the part of the speaker or writer. Since strategy is about what happens because of tactical and operational action, one is in some peril of saying, or perhaps appearing to say, that tactics and operations cause themselves, given the true meaning of strategy that ought not to be forgotten. Amidst the theoretical contortions into which the unwary theorist might wander dangerously is a truly lethal categorical error. If, in essence, strategy is made of the deeds and misdeeds of both tactics and operations, albeit spiced with a desirably heavily seasoning by political preference, one is compelled to recognize some eternal and universal truth about strategy.

Most especially we need to appreciate that the subject is inexorably holistic. It can be a challenge to explain to students with sufficient clarity that strategy does not mean what most probably they had believed. Both scholarly academic and popular authors misuse strategy and its adjective with scant conceptual discipline. Strategy simultaneously can be both a grander and a more limited and specific idea than usefully is captured in the ideas herded by tactics and also by operations. This is not to be critical of theory in their respect, of course. Of particular importance for the analysis is the relative clarity of classification. We know and generally agree about what is, or should be meant by tactics and by operations. This theorist is not greatly enamored of the inevitable separations imposed now in the standard triad of key ideas among tactics, operations, and strategy. There is an inflexibility about this triadic categorization which impedes comprehension. Indeed, there is a school-like rigidity about much of the writing on our subject, to the limited extent to which busy professionals are willing to devote scarce time to subjects theoretical!

It is essential never to forget that strategy usually is a contested topic; the enemy also has a vote. Strategy is made for a region of real-world action that may hover between almost free will on a high level of policy shaped and driven by politics, and the serious constraint of enemies determined to resist. Popular reference to the allegedly strategic this or that seems likely to help obscure the meaning of the subject and the implications that can follow. One can almost feel the wave of disappointment when an audience is introduced to the quite novel idea that the somewhat mysterious quality, ‘strategic’, does not, by certain definition, have a settled material reality. In other words, in the most important of senses strategy cannot be photographed, rather is it a contextual quality of judgement. To risk understatement, this can be an appreciation too far for many soldiers and civilians alike. However, to the gifted political or military leader, the logic of this argument can be liberating.

The difference between policy and strategy on the one hand, and tactics and operations on the other, is truly enormous. In the former categories of thought and behaviour, relatively few choices are prohibited, while in the latter the hindrances and constraints are usually known and may well both be material and human physical, and possibly even visible. Political leaders will tell their strategists, political and military, what they must strive to do, but also possibly how they should go about trying to do what their orders command. Flexibility in policy goals is commonly situationally specific, being at least partially driven by the clamorous demands of notably inexpert domestic publics, or troublesome foreign allies.

Flexibility commonly is understood not only to be a virtue in statecraft and even in strategy, but also an actual requirement for prudent political and military high command. An obvious problem arises, however, if leaders allow themselves to be tempted fatally by the apparent benefits of adaptation judged domestically to be unduly conciliatory towards a competitor. Strategy differs enormously from the other functions of relevant theory in that it, alone, by definition has yet to occur. Politics and policy, tactics and operations, can all be affected now, which has to mean that empirical knowledge is near instantly available. Tactical mistakes may kill you today, while operational error may prove fatal in days or perhaps weeks. The contrast with strategic error can hardly be clearer. A strategic error in statecraft or strategy may take years to reveal itself in its full horror. For a very obvious and exceedingly large scale historical example of strategic folly, consider the negative consequences for Native Americans of their failure to keep European intruders offshore. I appreciate why the Native population of the Americas, north and south, could not exclude European colonization. Nonetheless, one does feel that, given their advantages in numbers and, before too long, even in equine mobility, only a poor job was made of effective resistance.

Another glaring example of the grim meaning of strategy is offered in the example of William of Normandy’s successful invasion of England in 1066 which, through operational and then tactical error, King Harold of Wessex managed to lose. The ill consequences of the Norman Conquest endured literally for centuries. This was Saxon strategic failure on a truly grand scale. Tactical and even operational mistakes obviously can prove extremely costly, whereas strategic errors in those undertakings have the potential apparently to shift the whole of a society’s historical course. A few years ago I wrote for this journal about the Battle of Britain, waged briefly in the sky largely over southern England in August and September 1940. This battle, the first of its kind in history, was tactically and operationally momentous, but its ultimate significance has to be judged strategic. This battle, which of course Germany lost, required Hitler to leave Britain uninvaded in 1940, and, given his race against his own mortality, to make the conquest of the USSR, the next task on Nazi Germany’s path of conquest. Failure in a single campaign in 1940 was to have consequences in shaping the entire rest of the war. This fact highlights admirably what is meant by the adjective strategic. The sequence of events from 1941 until 1945, and then the East-West political and military standoff until as late as 1991, was all in traceably logical part a result of German failure over England in Fall 1940.

Probably it would be too much to ask of soldiers that they should lift their gaze somewhat from the death and destruction of contemporary action in order to consider the possible, even probable, meaning of ‘action this day’ for the course even of unknown, indeed unknowable, events tomorrow. By way of sharp contrast with the understandably limited horizons of most soldiers, the strategist, military or civilian, must peer into the future as best he or she is able. The purpose will be to attempt to comprehend the direction the polity is taking, though possibly, even more probably, not the objectives that may be achievable.

Unlike the professional world for the tactician, the strategist typically has sufficient time allowing for the making of well-considered opinions. In practice, both the military tactician and the political policy maker inhabit a world distinctly vulnerable to the pressures most characteristic of crisis. Quite often and not reliably anticipatable, the politician, as also the tactician, is compelled to make irrevocable choices. Not all words spoken carelessly can be excused or subsequently explained away satisfactorily. It can and probably should be pointed out that not all strategic choices will be beyond revocation. There is an ironic twist to the history of strategy. Whereas, unlike the realms of politics and tactics, the world of the strategist is one that should enable the taking of adequate time prior to the making of decisive commitment. However, once made and executed, strategic decision tends to be near impossible to correct in a major way. Typically, one can go back on an unwise tactical choice or two. It may even be possible to change one’s mind on a political commitment. Strategic choices, however, have inherently more engaging, hence embarrassing at the least, potential to do one harm. A foolish decision to invade, topple, and then replace Stalin’s USSR, was found to have placed the German Sixth Army on the Volga in winter 1942 quite beyond rescue. The Nazi disaster at Stalingrad provides textbook illustration of what it is about particular political and military operational choices that renders them extraordinarily strategic when one invades Russia with far too few men, too late in the year: disaster beckons.

It is an important general truth about strategy that whereas the other principal components of relevant theory (politics, military operations, and tactics) usually, though assuredly not invariably, can be, indeed often are, adopted and thereby adjusted so as to fit more closely the live emerging context, strategy can be near impossible to revoke. The concept of strategy pertains to a whole course of events, not just to a particular object or occurrence of special interest. For recent examples, the American-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were both of them plain strategic failures. US political objectives in both countries were not secured and maintained, which, when all else is said and done, is what the most relevant strategy was all about. It is not about trying hard, striving energetically to do good things, even allegedly in the national interest.

Not infrequently polities are able to control the temporal duration of their striving. As Clausewitz noted prominently, however, sometimes the enemy of the day has a vote on the subject of war’s duration.[iv] A war may well conclude persuasively when parties to the conflict decide they are unable to wage sufficient further warfare to stand a reasonable prospect of securing politically worthwhile advantage. Alternatively, of course, war can end when there are no longer rivals in a condition fit to sustain or renew active hostilities. In the latter case the political issues at stake may simply be left undecided, possibly to remain for the troubling of succeeding generations in future wars. It is not always essential for world order that great strategic issues should be solved. Some of the most deeply felt issue areas in global politics prudently have long been left politically unresolved. For example, the false religion, socialism for an obvious example, will not have the trans-historical staying power characteristic of the major faiths.

The Difference

Strategy does not bear a close relationship to politics, tactics, and operations, except crucially and ironically, that it is the product of all of them. I appreciate that this can be a distinctly challenging concept to grasp, because we have (all of us!) grown used to misemploying both the noun and the adjective of strategy/strategic. Moreover, states by the dozen have come to add strategy and strategic to their official vocabularies, apparently with scarcely a second thought. If one challenges some official claim or argument with respect to the meaning of strategic, it has been, and remains today, a field day for invention and rule by expediency.

To be a strategist is to march with history, indeed inevitably in history unavoidably as a participant observer towards unknowable destinations. Happenings possibly of unusual significance may well be believed worthy of a description ‘strategic’. From time to time, in retrospect, such understanding may appear validated empirically by subsequent apparently significantly consequential events. By professional choice the strategist cannot avoid causative separation from the deeds and thoughts he or she has had. The strategist’s only realm cannot exist prior to tomorrow.


[i] Colin S. Gray, Theory of Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).
[ii] The German Army invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941, deploying 3,050,000 men and 3350 tanks. Dpartment of the Army, Historical Studies, The German Campaign in Russia: Planning and Operations (1940-1942), Pamphlet No. 20-261a (Baltimore, MD: Department of the Army, March 1955), p.41.
[iii] See Colin S. Gray, “Clipping the Eagle’s Wings; Explaining Failure and Success in the Battle of Britain, 1940”, Infinity Journal, Special edn. (October 2012), pp. 5-11.
[iv] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Priceton University Press, 1976), p.75.