Strategic Thought and the Military Officer (Cont.)

Officers as Strategic Thinkers

            The officer will function as strategist in one of three roles, as commander, as staff officer, and as adviser. Most officer-strategists are staff officers.  Among commanders, only the very senior, those at the three or four-star level, are usually considered to be functioning as strategists. Although junior, tactical leaders should also understand strategy.[i] The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior American unformed officer, is the president’s principle military adviser. Officers’ strategic roles may appear to be straightforward and well-delineated by statute and table of organization, but they are in fact defined by personal, cultural, and organizational factors. Strategic thought involves and often demands a multiplicity of voices, of competing concerns and outlooks.  This can both inform and impede the strategic process. At times, strategic thought and direction, overwhelmed by the difficulties of reconciling the many departmental mouths to feed, has come to a halt, opening a fatal gap in the transmission of policy into military action, leaving to operational and even tactical commanders the task of wrestling with strategic issues that should have been worked out for them. In these cases, officers can become strategists by default, the task of strategic direction having been abdicated by those nominally entrusted with it. Historical examples of this are almost too numerous to mention. That of Vietnam has already been discussed. Korea may offer another. U.S. strategy regarding Korea turned quickly from indifference to commitment to World War II-style decisive victory.[ii] Shaped by the experience of victory in the recent war, it took U.S. planners some time to acknowledge that this was a different kind of war in which there might be a different kind of victory. Sometimes absent clear strategic guidance, commanders in the field from MacArthur to Van Fleet flirted with and sometimes danced attendance on the idea of decisive victory, reuniting all of Korea at the point of the sword and punishing or even openly warring with mainland communist China. Aiming for intervals at victory, the U.S. and its allies achieved stalemate, or status quo ante bellum. It might be useful to contrast this with Vietnam, a war shaped by the previous experience of Korea, in which aiming at a stalemate produced defeat.

The tendency for American strategic direction to be hazy and “ad hoc” continues into our own time. In “National-Level Coordination: How System Attributes Trumped Leadership,” Christopher Lamb and Megan Franco depict a strategy process dealing with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that turns out “consensus” strategy documents that are largely ignored, leaving real strategy in the minds of a few senior officials, and sometimes to be guessed at.[iii] Important questions regarding the nature of the terrorist threat and the priority given to nation-building were left unanswered, to be improvised or intuited by those in the field.

Officers are expected to be professionals and the experts on military strategy, but Georges Clemenceau’s statement that war was too important to be left to generals still resonates.  It is the means of war which is officers’ area of expertise, not the ends, and this suggests that an incomplete grasp of the ends limits even their understanding of how the means should be employed. The officer, by her training and experience, will often stop at the military victory, with insufficient thought or preparation to securing the peace.  This predilection was arguably played out as the allies approached victory in World War II, when large sections of Europe were left to Soviet control, in the difficult Civil War Reconstruction, when the freedom of many ex-slaves was rendered almost nominal by a revival of racist policies in the southern states, and most recently following the American and allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The matching of military strategy to policy presents a problem. Officers (especially those at the strategy level) are expected to be politically literate and even sophisticated, but not politically involved or motivated.  In effect, the respect of the civilian leadership and the public for officers as strategists rests on their expectation that officers’ expertise and code of honor will see that they render well-considered advice that is neither partisan nor self-serving. Of course, it may be both, as well as simply and honestly wrong, because officers are human, subject to their limitations and sometimes to outside pressure. Interpersonal and inter-agency relations have a strong influence on the development of strategy, and so may the consensus or “laundry list” approach that sometimes seems to be encouraged by doctrine and the bureaucracy.

The military strategist looks up and down. He implements policy and also creates the conditions for success on the operational and tactical level.  Part of this falls under the officer’s role as organizer, under training and force planning, but the strategist is also a warfighter.  Working at a greater remove from the fighting, she is also expected to think across a broader area, even the whole of earth, and a longer expanse of time.  In focusing on the fight, he must always consider the position at the end of conflict, of the moment when the fighting ends and the long denouement begins, as the armies return home, reduce in size, change from waging war to keeping peace, as rebuilding begins and the political map is redrawn.


Next: A Complex Environment + Conclusions

[i] B.A. Friedman, On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017).

[ii] D. Clayton James and Anne Sharpe Wells, Refighting the Last War: Command and Crisis in Korea 1950-1953 (New York: Free Press-Macmillan, 1993).

[iii] Richard D. Hooker and Joseph J. Collins Eds. Lessons Encountered: Learning From the Long War (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2015), pp. 168-169.

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