The Strategists

ONCE A MONTH, Kenneth Payne, a Lecturer at King's College London, surveys the intellectual currents fermenting at Kings of War, the faculty and student blog of the Dept of War Studies at KCL. 


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Rather than riffing off a month's worth of posts, I thought I'd home in on the one post that has generated more comments than any other we've done so far. Thomas Rid wanted to know why there were so few American strategists compared to those from Europe.  First problem, who is a strategist? Thomas distinguished between historians and strategists, but not between practitioners and theorists - so George Marshall and Bernard Brodie both count, and both, of course, are Americans too. In the discussion that followed, this question of man of letters versus man of action came up repeatedly. To be sure, it's difficult to make hard and fast distinctions between thinkers and doers - Clausewitz would count as both theorist and practitioner, and something of a historian too; even a civilian like Thomas Schelling could lay claim to a certain practitioner status, in shaping the practice of US deterrence. My own view is close to Brodie - strategy certainly need not be an activity done by the military, even if it requires a firm grasp of military detail. In fact, a civilian strategist, with years of mulling the whys and wherefores of strategic behaviour, may be better placed than a general whose career has largely been spent wrestling with tactical and operational issues, away from the intersection of politics and violence. More than that, in both low intensity and nuclear strategy, the aggressive traits of a proven battlefield winner may actually prove disadvantageous. Don't believe me? Take a quick flick through the transcripts of the Cuban missile crisis.




So what then is the essence of strategic thinking? For me, a broad definition is best. Anyone who thinks seriously about the inter-relationship between a society's goals and its means of achieving them, especially through the use of organised violence, deserves consideration as a strategic thinker. 


So what then is the essence of strategic thinking? For me, a broad definition is best. Anyone who thinks seriously about the inter-relationship between a society's goals and its means of achieving them, especially through the use of organised violence, deserves consideration as a strategic thinker. Steve Metz thought that public recognition was important - great strategists were eventually recognised as such, even if it took time, as in Clausewitz's case. For Thomas, there was a question of quantity: sustained, high quality strategic thought was one of his yardsticks. It takes more than 10,000 words to make a sensible and convincing argument, he argued, albeit in only 10 words.

Who else was on the KoW list? Brodie, Marshall and Clausewitz, of course. But many more besides - Jomini, Scharnhorst, du Picq, von Moltke, Lawrence, Douhet, Galula, Mahan, Wohlstetter ... the list went on and on. Surely there's a book in it... There was, naturally, some disagreement about relative importance, very well illustrated by the case of John Boyd, he of the OODA loop. For his fans, like Zenpundit, Boyd was a visionary thinker, with some dazzling insights on the connections between cognition and reality. For his detractors, me included, he was no great shakes. Personally, I like his eclectic use of philosophy and science to illustrate his thinking, but I've always been underwhelmed by the extension of the tactical skills needed to succeed in aerial combat into the strategic sphere. Observing enemy aircraft, orienting and deciding a course of action are one thing - choosing between values like order and justice, and deciding a strategy based on that judgment are quite another. Still, however lacking in profundity, one thing Boyd has in his favour is prominence, especially in the air power world. You don't need to be right to be listened to, or even considered as a great.

Where, meanwhile, are the great strategists of the modern age? David Betz pointed to Hew Strachan's terrific article on the lost meaning of strategy. As strategy became progressively a civilian activity, and as the ostensibly apolitical military focused resolutely on the operational level of war, who, David wondered, was left doing strategy? Perhaps no one, he concluded, though he offered Rupert Smith as a modern thinker of note. It's true, Smith's The Utility of Force made quite a splash and has been a useful corrective, I suppose, to the post-Vietnam focus on conventional warfare in the American military. But I personally find very little in it that is new. War has always been among the people. Steve Metz thought that the West might be in a strategic lull at the moment, given the absence of really pressing threats. Without the pressures of really serious conflict, there's no need for new strategic thinking. There's something to that, I think, though I'd include David Kilcullen in the bracket of modern strategic thinkers, as someone who reflects seriously on how to use force effectively against the West's adversaries, and moreover, as someone who combines serious academic study with practical policy guidance.

What about Thomas's original question - on the imbalance between the US and Europe? Two answers emerged - from Patrick Porter came the riposte that, actually the US has produced plenty of strategic thought: Richard Betts, Stephen Biddle, Jack Snyder, among many others. From David Betz, a geostrategic argument - for most of its history, America's geography, and its conscious exceptionalism, gave it latitude to be astrategic. Those are both sensible answers, though the US is now, of course, heavily engaged in hegemonic management of the international system it did so much to fashion.

The debate is still going on - why not join in?