Small Wars Journal

Must Read at Infinity Journal

The Foundation of Strategic Thinking by LtGen Paul Van Riper (USMC Ret.) at Infinity Journal. (Free registration required to access the article).

"The United States and its allies need senior civilian officials and military officers who grasp the fundamental nature of systems, are adept at building shared mental models, comprehend the significance of Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity, understand operational art and can connect strategic thinking with tactical actions through operational design. These are the true competencies of modern defense professionals."



Wed, 07/18/2012 - 2:16pm

One point of confusion that is easy to fall into is the term(s) system and systems analysis. A "system" analysis does break the system down into it's component parts and it should do this. The other is a "systems" analysis which should not break the systems down but should study how they interface with each other not how the parts depend on each other. The techniques to do each are different because the subjects of each is very different but it is often talked about as if both are the same.

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 07/17/2012 - 11:44am

Sometimes I think all these articles around here are like rorshach tests and we see what we want to see....

At any rate, in simple and clear language, the article covers enormous ground, so that a reader may "see" many things within it. I am partial to the aspects on paying attention to demographics, history, and current societal trends. What a distillation of thought! Fabulous.

G Martin

Mon, 07/16/2012 - 11:03pm

I agree, sir, one of the best articulated papers on why we need Design and how we have incorporated it into doctrine incorrectly. My only concern with it was a possible over-reliance on systems thinking theory and the "operational art" links tactics and strategy paradigm. I would add a few other disciplines to systems thinking such as emergence theory, evolutionary change mechanism theory, and quantum mechanics theory- and also other possibilities of how one can "mentally model" how to break-down and visualize how we go from actions on the ground to securing U.S. national interests. I submit that offering any one method for doing so limits our profession's ability to imagine/invent other methods.

I would also encourage us in DoD to get away from wishing away the problem of a political environment in which we have no grand strategy and where political objectives are nebulous and/or constantly changing. Instead I would have us develop operational concepts within that environment. Then, if our politicians get their act together around a homogenous populace or a clear threat- then we'll be that much better off/focused. But, until then- we need something to do in the absence of those gifts.

What does the operational artist (or strategist- or even tactician I'd argue) do in the current environment? How do they ensure that what they do is in the interest of our nation? I submit that if your infantry platoon or SF ODA continues to drive on with their same mission profiles in the absence of a FRAGO from a COCOM- wholly ignoring the embassy, changes back in DC that are apparent via the news, regional politics and priorities- even if officially unstated, and the changing domestic environment back home- then they are doing a disservice to the nation- even if they are legally/doctrinally correct. And I don't think we are training/educating anyone to think like that.

- Grant

Bill M.

Tue, 07/17/2012 - 12:38am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell


I'm closet fan of Clausewitz, but I'm frustrated with those who can't move him and incorporate new ideas. I think Clausewitz's explanation of the trinity will stand the test of time. It is a brilliant observation on war. I think his views on the center of gravity, and massing forces on that COG are only relevant in some situations and not universal, but it is too often taken as gospel in our ranks and artifically applied to situations where it is irrelevant. This article as you know was much more than a hat tip to Clausewitz, but another call for more clarity in our thinking and planning processes. It would be interesting to compare WWII strategic thinking and processes to today's efforts, and see if we have actually moved forward or regressed.

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 07/16/2012 - 8:35am

I concur with Dave, this is a must read. I know the anti-Clausewitzians will disagree but we really should understand that the paradoxical trinity is one of the most complex non-linear systems in which we must be able to operate since it describes the fundamental nature of conflict across the entire spectrum.