A Complex Environment
Strategy provides an illustration of one of the abiding themes of modern thought, which is that the relationship among things and persons often counts as much or more than the characteristics of the things themselves. From relativity, psychiatry, and existentialist and post-modernist thought onwards, persons, political bodies, ideas and events have been seen to be defined by how they interact. The challenge of strategic thought may be expressed as the attempt to bring elements into agreement in spite of their antagonism. The paradox of military strategy is that the means are violent, inherently unsettling, as likely to inflame antagonism as to extinguish it, or to only temporarily quell antagonisms, leaving the real cause untouched and as ignitable as ever. Not only is strategy dependent on the relationship of opposing forces to one another, of force to the geopolitical landscape and to policy, but (as we have seen) the production and execution of strategic thought is also based on many relationships among individuals and organizations, from small departments to nation states, non-state actors, and other international organizations. The officer-as-strategist must navigate in this complex social and political terrain in which perceptions of commitment and credibility count as much as the inherent merit of plans and ideas. Even the most brilliant plan, lacking necessary support and imaginative and determined execution will fail to be adopted or will simply fail. To accept and execute the best strategy, there will often have to be learning, new ways of thinking, the overcoming of habits and even of allegiances. Strategic thought often involves the overcoming of narrow or parochial loyalties and relationships in favor of a broadly national, global, humanitarian outlook.
The political and pragmatic aspects of strategy must never be confused with moral relativism. It is a challenge for every officer, especially given the sometimes-brutal nature of her calling, not to lose sight of the precious things she serves and guards. Whatever role they occupy, the credibility and authority of officers continues to depend on their being persons of honor.
What can be done to improve the contributions of officers to strategic thought? The solutions are both structural and cultural. On the structural level, the armed forces should consider adopting some of the non-hierarchical organization of some businesses and becoming less rigid and authoritarian. This may appear anathema to military ideas of discipline and command and control, but real discipline is more a matter of compliance than compulsion. The armed forces must do a better job harnessing its own brain power. The rigidity of military organizations is responsible for some of the “brain drain” among some of the brighter junior officers and NCOs.[i] They see weary years ahead before their ideas can have much impact, and so are seeking occupations that are not so tied to mere seniority.
The cultural changes are more numerous and important. A military culture stressing brain over brawn would help to create an atmosphere for better strategic thinking. This might include diminishing the fetishization of athletics at the service academies, for example. We should not reduce physical standards, but we should consider the evaluation and recognition of mental achievement to match. Currently, professional military education seems to be getting poor grades for the development of strategic thinkers.[ii] A more rigorous and reflective approach to professional education is part of the solution, but the military should also consider sending more officers (and some enlisted members) to graduate school to earn degrees in fields like history and the humanities.[iii] These fields can prepare officers to think in the ways required of strategists, to grasp ends as well as means, to consider history and the future as well as the present and immediate effects. The pursuit of strategy is a grand drama of epic and tragic proportions. It requires an historical perspective, human and ethical understanding, a poetics of war as much as doctrine. Military officers literally invest their lives in the pursuit of victory. They must also invest in the intellectual capital that make strategic success and victory attainable.
[i] There has been much writing on this subject over the last fifteen years. One of the most extensive and influential contributions to the literature of military retention is Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) by ex-Air Force officer Tim Kane. Kane calls for radical changes in the military personnel system and military career patterns to keep and cultivate the brightest and best.
[ii] War Room. Online. “Whiteboard: How Well Does the Army Develop Strategic Leaders?” June 25 2018.
[iii]See Christopher D. Miller, “Creating the Force of the Future,” interview with Brad R. Carson, Acting Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness). Journal of Character and Leadership Integration, Volume 3, Issue 2, Winter 2016 Special Edition, “Leading in the Profession of Arms.” Carson laments the small and diminishing number of senior officers with advanced degrees in areas like literature and military history. See also Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli and Major Stephen Smith, USA, “Learning From Our Modern Wars: The Imperatives of Preparing for a Dangerous Future,” Military Review, September-October 2007, pp. 2-15. Chiarelli observes that, despite his numerous “muddy boots” assignments, “the experience that best prepared me for division and corps command in Iraq was the 5 years I spent earning a masters degree and teaching in the Social Sciences Department at the U.S. Military Academy.”