Small Wars Journal

Do Ideas Matter?

Share this Post

Do Ideas Matter?

A Clausewitzian Case Study

by Adam Elkus

Download the full article: Do Ideas Matter?

"Ideas matter," the new Army Capstone Concept declares. Ideas certainly do matter, and doctrine can be the key to victory or defeat. But it is immensely difficult to predict the form that ideas will eventually take. The reception and dilution of Clausewitzian theory in American military doctrine suggests that influence is contingent--and the end product of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine's continuing evolution in American strategy is unlikely to conform to the predictions of either COIN's most fervent admirers or detractors.

Download the full article: Do Ideas Matter?

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is currently Associate Editor at Red Team Journal. His articles have been published in West Point CTC Sentinel, Small Wars Journal, and other publications. He blogs at Rethinking Security and The Huffington Post. He is currently a contributor to the Center for Threat Awareness' ThreatsWatch project.

About the Author(s)


I agree that Echevarria's book is great. I only recently read Peter Paret's "Clausewitz and the State," (a biography). What struck me was that Clausewitz's personal and professional "journey of discovery" about conflict during an era of change, and of his criticism of how his own country did not measure up, seems to parallel in spirit the discussions here at SWJ and elsewhere about our own way forward.
For interesting tandem reading, I'd recommend Jon Sumida's "Decoding Clausewitz" set against Paret's recent "The Cognitive Challenge of War." The differing views on Clausewitz and his writings can prompt fresh perspective on "ideas that matter."

The levels of war are probably the most egregious example of a concept that is useful in theory as a tool for analysis, but has had a negative impact when applied in doctrinal sense (in this I agree with the authors of the Army War College SSI pub "Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy"). The concept of strategic/operational and tactical is great for looking at history and how different actions relate to one another and how the breadth and complexity of considerations changes as you look at different commands/organizations. However, their insertion, and emphasis, in doctrine has resulted in what I would term the "search for identity" by commands and the use of these doctrinal definitions to substitute for competent understanding of the environment/situation in conducting design and planning.

In the US Navy, for example, they have gone so far as to name their new doctrinal pub NWP 3-32 "Maritime Operations at the Operational Level of War," and to explicitly identify specific commands with the strategic, operational and tactical levels (all in a neat matrix). The impact, as Ive seen it, is that a commander is likely to derive his concept of mission, tasks, etc. based on the level of war he is identified with, rather than looking at the more practical considerations of who do I work for? What forces do I have? Who do I have to coordinate with? Etc. The stratification into levels does not aid judgment, but rather narrows it into specific lanes. It has even translated into detailed ideas that "operational level" requires "operational control" as the command relationship between the commander and his subordinates (a very specific option in US doctrine, but one of many).

If it were up to me, the levels would stay at school and in theory, where they have use--and not waste valuable time and effort in such endeavors as developing Centers of Gravity for each level of war, trying to ascertain whether what we are doing is "inappropriately tactically focused," or declaring some capability as "strategic" and thus its use is driven by the self-importance of its designation and not by its utility in accomplishing the mission ("strategic" bombers).

<i>This is a great piece. I think that what it really highlights is the divide, and relationship between educating for war (theory) and training for war (doctrine). I believe that reading the theorists drives you to think about war from various perspectives. Clausewitz, Jomini, Sun Tzu, provide lens to review what I learn from history and what I experience in order to critically tear it apart, put it back together and consider all the relationships, interactions and complexity at large. The theorists and their ideas support reflection, not action (even if they write in terms of recommending action).</i>

I would say that the difficulty from turning the abstract into the concrete is the same whether we're talking about doctrine or organized religion. In many ways, the development of doctrine is akin to the disconnect between man's search for questions about where he came from and what his purpose is and the inevitable tendancy to turn this into a system of rules that says "don't jerk off while looking at Megan Fox pics, or else God will make you blind".

William F. Owen

Thu, 01/28/2010 - 2:55am

I had long think about this last night.
a.) For Hannibal, the COG he never realised was the Roman Senate, because that was what enabled the Romans to keep simply building Army's.
b.) The same was true in Vietnam. The US chose not to decisively interfere with the North's ability to generate forces.

Now these were PHYSICAL COGs. I think what seems obvious that there are psychological COGs as well. Context, context and context.

Treat with caution. I strongly contend that Jomini's LOO, got eaten up in in Soviet "Operational Art" and thus we now have the mess with have today with the "Operational Level of War" and confusion over "Campaigning" and The Conduct of Operations.

What we seem bad at, is calling out the bad ideas!

The story of the Line of Operation really intrigues me. It started as a physical line between an armys base of operations towards its geographic objective. The concept supported geometrical thinking about operations (how to operate your Army so as to protect your line of operation while threatening your enemys).

It then morphed into the conceptual realm. As best I can figure from deciphering old SAMS briefs, the Logical Line of Operation described the path of various operations and decisive points towards an enemy Center of gravity, or major objective, where maneuver through physical space wasnt relevant. In this sense, as I see it, the "LLOO" was defined by the objective or COG being worked toward, not the nature of the activity along the line (JP 3-0 still refers to this definition of a LLOO).

The final morphing, still in the conceptual level, the LLOO is a "conceptual category" of operations (per FM 3-24), such as information, governance, economics, etc. To my mind, this is a very different meaning from either the first physical description of a line of operation, or even the second COG/objective based LLOO. The new FM 3-0 calls LLOOs "Lines of Effort." (and FM 3-0 probably has the best explanation/description in US doctrine).

Now, lines of operation are everywhere in every conceivable operation. I cant remember when Ive ever seen them referred to in their original physical sense (and it would be pretty confusing to have the line of operation between point A and point B set alongside "governance"). My concern is that I never seem to get a good answer as to why some operations are organized along lines of operation and what was the methodology to derive those lines. The issue comes as LOOs as organizing principles translate into task organization, command relationships and battlespace coordination.

My point is not to drag down into a discussion on the finer points of doctrine, but I believe that understanding what Jomini wrote, and, if it were contained anywhere accessible, the whole thought process behind developing logical lines of operation/lines of effort, enables better understanding and more relevant application of this doctrinal tool.

A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 01/27/2010 - 4:47pm

Phil, that's actually a part of the piece that I ended up deleting because I wanted to keep it relatively short, but it's an important insight. Lines of operation, decisive points, principles of war, etc--it's all a grab bag of Fuller, Jomini, Foch, etc. That's why even if the COG we use isn't the COG Clausewitz might have recommended, it still might be ok.

This is a great piece. I think that what it really highlights is the divide, and relationship between educating for war (theory) and training for war (doctrine). I believe that reading the theorists drives you to think about war from various perspectives. Clausewitz, Jomini, Sun Tzu, provide lens to review what I learn from history and what I experience in order to critically tear it apart, put it back together and consider all the relationships, interactions and complexity at large. The theorists and their ideas support reflection, not action (even if they write in terms of recommending action).

Doctrine, on the other hand provides a guide to action. Its informed by the theory, but its practical. While Elkus piece discusses the aspects of Clausewitz found in US joint doctrine, what I find more interesting is that those selected concepts of COG and the trinity are placed along side others such as Principles of War (originating largely from J.F.C. Fuller), Lines of Operation and Decisive Points (the latter two from Jomini). Anyone who has some knowledge of the entirety of these three theorists work could assume theyd be surprised to find themselves side-by-side in doctrinal manuals.

Being put there for the practical purpose of supporting planning and execution, Im not as concerned whether a commander uses the COG as a source of strength or a balance point in his approach. What I am concerned with is when these processes are used formulaically and without knowledge of where or why they came about. Training to doctrine without the basis of education leads to rote thinking and poor action.

The ideas matter. They always have. What we seem to miss sometimes is that we are and have always been executing according to ideas. I think the problem is that in our pursuit of the practical we tend to be uneducated about what exact ideas are influencing us, why they came about, and thus we cannot apply them with good judgment.

A.E. (not verified)

Wed, 01/27/2010 - 1:07pm

Thanks William. I agree about the linkage (hence the Bassford quotation), but I do think that the misunderstanding that usually neglects chance, passions, and reason usually leads to a misunderstanding of the concept as a whole.

Bassford does make a similar argument that you do that even the Summers version of it does have some level of support. Even with a drug gang in Mexico you do have People, Leadership, and Armed Force.

William F. Owen

Wed, 01/27/2010 - 12:31pm

Excellent article. We need more like this!

I would quibble with the issue of the trinity being more complex than merely People, Armed Force and Leadership. The trinity is the actually the minimum you need on place to "set forth policy." You need people, and armed force and some form of political leadership. The issues of chance, passions and reason are all important however.

"Ideas are not injected into organizations like the mind-control serums seen in Saturday morning cartoon shows. Communications scholars rebutting spurious claims that violent video games cause social deviance derisively refer to this fallacious model of influence as the "injection model." Instead, ideas are often transformed and remixed by those who receive them according to a range of competing influences. Doctrine is no exception. Theorists should be careful about making judgments on the influence of certain ideas and the respective purity of their realization in defense affairs."

I would say that confirmation bias definitely comes in to play sometimes.