Strategic Thought and the Military Officer

I recently submitted another article to The Strategy Bridge. I plan to post the article in 3 parts over the next few days. Below is the introduction and a section titled, “The Nature of Strategic Thought.” Next will be “The Officer as Strategic Thinker.”


                                     Strategic Thought and the Military Officer


For officers, strategic thought is a subset, along with tactical and operational thinking, to their roles as organizer, planner, and warfighter. But strategic thought is distinct from the other forms of thinking in which officers must engage in its much greater complexity. It is also the way of thinking which most requires the officer to be self-conscious, or “metacognitive,” and in effect to distance herself from the kinds of thinking required for the tactical and operational levels of war at which she normally functions.  In its complexity of means and ends, strategy is more than just another level of war. Perhaps this is why the record of strategy is so marked by error and failure. Failure in war in most often a failure a strategy. For the officer, this means that all the effort, sacrifice, and success at the tactical and operational levels may well come to naught because of a flawed strategy. In this article, I will consider the nature of strategic thought and the officer’s role in it to determine why this is so, and what is to be done.

Of all levels of armed conflict, strategy is most concerned with complex ends and long-term effects which are difficult to plan and foresee. For the strategist, war is the irrational in the service of the rational: force, or the threat of force, in the service of policy. As the theorists Deleuze and Guattari note, the so-called “war machine” is not an efficient instrument, but an unlikely fusion of competing opposites.[i] The war machine is not complete until the two sides come into conflict.  If war is a machine, it operates as if one person worked the gears and another (his deadly enemy), controlled the power source!   History, to include recent U.S. history, is full of examples of military victories, deterrence or dominance that had ambiguous results. Even the allied victory in World War II, although it is considered one of the most important and decisive in history, destroyed three militant and acquisitive empires to set the stage for the expansion of a fourth. On the other hand, the Soviet Union created enormous conscripted armed forces and won victories by proxy all over the world, but none of this prevented the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. nor the receding of the international communism of which it saw itself as the standard-bearer.


The Nature of Strategic Thought


Tactical and operational thought are personal and tribal. Officers leading at these levels are often in direct contact with the people doing the fighting, and they are subject to the conditions of the battlefield or theater of operations. Tactical and operational thought are conducted within the tight-knit tactical unit or in a staff among officers who, even if they are of different services and nationalities, often share a similar outlook and vocabulary of military symbols and structures. Strategic thought is bureaucratic.  It requires bureaucratic resources, is performed by bureaucracies, and often exhibit the good and bad traits of bureaucracies in general. Strategic thought and planning are less tribal than tactical operational thought because much of it is influenced and conducted by non-tribal civilian academics and government officials, and less personal because it is conducted at a considerable remove from the troops and scene of conflict. It is bureaucratic in the sense that it is conducted by hierarchical, rule-bound, expertise-driven standing organizations that meet the criteria on which sociologists generally agree. The term bureaucracy and bureaucrat have evolved into epithets, an evocation of the worst traits of bureaucracies and of organizations in general, particularly those of government. Nevertheless, as Max Weber noted, bureaucracies are in most senses preferable to the kinds of hereditary, ad hoc, and unregulated mechanisms of policy that came before. Some innovative organizations, mostly in the private sector, have begun to adopt forms of organization that depart from the model laid out by Weber and his successors, for example becoming less hierarchical. Currently, the organizations dedicated to military strategic planning and execution follow the traditional model.  Strategic thought takes place in a variety of venues, from the war colleges and other service schools, to civilian academic institutions, to a multiplicity of “think tanks.” Actual strategic planning is focused on the service branch headquarters, the major regional and functional combatant commands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Department.

The bureaucratic nature of the military establishment can be an impediment to clear strategic thought.  A much-read and very detailed account of poor strategic thought (which was perhaps intensified by a lack of moral courage) is H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam.[ii]  Service rivalry and careerism contributed to flawed policy and a lack of strategic direction. Strategic direction in Vietnam was guided by complex forces that inhibited clear thinking. In The Irony of Vietnam: the System Worked, Leslie Gelb and co-author Richard Betts present a nuanced argument concerning strategic failure.[iii] To briefly summarize, they argue that the civil and military bureaucracies of the federal government, realizing that victory in Vietnam was probably unlikely, nevertheless fell into line, reluctant to damage their credibility by resistance or half-hearted efforts.  The bureaucracies that create strategy to support policy have the vices of their virtues, which are efficiency and unity of effort. They can implement policy, but they usually do not make or undo it. From the 1940’s to the 1960’s, the military bureaucracy moved from extreme caution to commitment concerning operations in Vietnam.  The Joint Chiefs at first considered the region relatively unimportant, and they warned that effective intervention would likely require a confrontation with China, but once the decision had been made that the perils of disengagement outweighed those of commitment, all doubts were suppressed, even in the face of growing evidence that the war was un-winnable.  As a prescription, the authors of The Irony of Vietnam call for pragmatism over policy and doctrine (and, it might be necessary to add, ideology) in decision-making at the foreign policy and national security level.

(Next: Officers as Strategic Thinkers)



[i] Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Nomadology: The War Machine (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1986).

[ii] H.R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (New York: Harper Perennial, 1997).

[iii] Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington: Brookings, 1979).


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