It’s Doctrine, But I Can’t Explain It

It’s Doctrine, But I Can’t Explain It

Dale C. Eikmeier

A joint doctrine writer told me, “Doctrine is a camel built by a committee responsible for designing a horse. It may not be what you want, but it works.”[i] Most of us begrudgingly accept the camel, and try to figure out how to make it work. Sometimes the camel grows a trunk and we cannot figure out why or what to do with it. This leaves us wondering how something like a trunk made its way into doctrine.   

Now imagine if doctrinal writers had to defend their work in front of a thesis like committee. Not a committee of editors, or stakeholder representatives, but a committee comprised of recognized subject matter experts that value logic, consistency of arguments supported by evidence, and sound conclusions. Could such a committee stand guard against camels who’ve grown trunks? How would that work…?

“Subject Matter Experts you wanted to see me?”

“Ah welcome Doctrine Writer, please have a seat. We want to discuss your latest JP 5-0 chapter on operational art.”

“Thanks, I genuinely appreciate the committee’s help. I hate to say it but I am not sure of the depth of understanding the other reviewers have. They only want to discuss length, formatting and style. You on the other hand focus on content, it is refreshing.”

“Well the SME committee try’s. Today we’ll discuss two things: your claim that COGs exist only in adversarial contexts, and that COGs only exist only in unitary systems. As you have written them these two statements seem to be absolutes, but you never explain them. If we understand what you say, we need at least two unitary systems in an adversarial relationship just to have COGs present. We’re not sure what that looks like. So let’s start first with the adversarial relationship. Why do you say, ‘COGs exist in an adversarial context involving a clash of moral wills and/or physical strengths?’”[ii]

“Oh I got that from an article by Dr. Strange and Colonel Iron and their explanation of what Clausewitz really meant.” [iii]

“Yes we are familiar with their work. They discussed what Clausewitz wrote, based on his observations of early 19th century warfare. But, our question is, why do you use it?”

“Because Strange and Iron are recognized authorities on the subject, I thought it was important. It lends creditability to the discussion.”

“Perhaps, but only if it makes sense, and remember recognized authorities can disagree.

Our question is, why is the adversarial relationship essential to the discussion and what is the reasoning behind the statement? Please explain why it makes sense, and why it is necessary. If you can do that you can keep it in.”

“Oh, that’s easy. It’s because COGs are framed by each party’s view of the threats in the operational environment and the need to maintain power and strength relative to their need to be effective in accomplishing their objectives.”[iv]

“My, that sounds impressive, but what do you mean by framed? Why are they framed by each party’s view of the threat?”


“Maybe we can help. Let’s say you have two adversaries, who also coincidentally happen to be unitary systems, whatever those are, with opposing objectives. They are in direct competition with each other. Each places an obstacle, think of it as a threat, in front of the other blocking movement towards an objective. They select their own COG based on the understanding of the other’s COG. Is that what you mean by framing?”

“Umm… I think so.”

“You think so? May we suggest less copying and more critical thinking?

You mentioned the need to accomplish objectives. Can one have an objective without having an adversary?”

“Sure. An adversary isn’t needed.”

“So if one has an objective, the critical capabilities to achieve it and all of the means required can they have a COG?

“Sure. No wait! You have to have an adversary. You almost got me there.”

“That is what you chapter asserts, but why?”

“Because COGs can only exist in an adversarial context when viewed through the perspective of a threat to the objective. You can’t have a COG without an adversary.”

“Do you know what a circular argument is? Never mind. It sounds like you are parroting something you read without understanding it, are you?”

“I’m not sure?”

“Let’s try this another way.

Hmm… Our objective is to get home in time for dinner. Therefore, we need a transportation capability and we have a car. For argument sake let’s say the car is the COG. The weather and roads are clear and no one is trying to stop us from getting home. But, according to you, the car is only a COG if someone tries to oppose us, by creating some threat to us getting home. Does presence of an adversary determine if we have a COG or not? What if we don’t know someone is trying to stop us. Do we have a COG?”  

“Well if you have an adversary you have a COG because they only exist in the context of a clash of wills.”


“But if you don’t know you have an adversary there is no clash of wills for you and therefore no COG…

But your adversary knows you and hence the clash of wills exists, so you have a COG but don’t know it.

You see, whether you know of a clash of wills, there is a clash of wills and an adversary. So, you have a COG. You just don’t know it.”

“Did you hear what you just said?”

“Yeah, just don’t ask me to repeat it.”

“Let us help. I don’t know my adversary, so there is no frame, no threat to him, can he have a COG?”

“Sure, because HE knows there is a clash of wills. He has his COG, and he knows your COG.”

“So we have a COG, but don’t know it because we are oblivious to this unseen clash of wills.”

“Correct. Your COG exists because you have an adversary.”

“What if we don’t have an adversary?”

“Then you don’t have a COG. You have to have an adversary. No adversary, no COG. It’s rather simple. I’m not sure why you are having difficulty with this.”

“Oh we understand exactly what you are saying. We are having difficulty accepting the necessity or utility of it.

Okay, we still have an objective and a means with the critical capability to help us achieve our objective. In the example, our car that has the critical capability to transport us home. Isn’t our car the COG?”

“It is if you have an adversary. Otherwise it is just a car with the capability to get you to your objective.”

“Why? Why is an adversary even necessary? Can’t we just have an objective to have a COG and if there is an adversary opposing us just factor that into our choice of required capabilities and means? Maybe we’ll just change our route – a critical requirement, but our car is still the COG.

Now we’ll concede that an adversary influences our choice of COGs. An adversary may cause us to change the COG to something more resistant, but that is only a change. That is not saying the adversary is an absolute determinate or requirement. Would it just be clearer to say, ‘An adversary influences the selection of a COG?’?”

“Oh wait. I got it. I think I have a solution!

How about this, you always have an adversary. Every endeavor with an objective has an adversary, even if it is an intangible like friction or time. Traffic could be your adversary or bad weather. It doesn’t have to be your nemesis. Hey, it could be you, your choice that says, ‘take the long scenic way home’ even though you will be late for dinner.” 

“You are thinking out loud aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I may be on to something. Everything is a clash of wills or friction or entropy. There is always an adversary in every activity, even if it is only indecision or the wind blowing against you slowing you down.”

“So Doctrine Writer, if I understand you correctly, this force of ‘adversary’ is omnipresent.”

“Yes, it surrounds us. You know, I should be writing this down.”

“So then there is no context outside of an adversarial relationship?”

“Exactly... Why are you staring at me like that?”

“So if there is no context outside of an adversarial context, then COGs exist in the only context that exists, which is an adversarial context that always exists. Why say the COG exists in an adversarial context in the first place? Even the simple act of breathing is a clash of wills. What is the value of the statement? How does it advance understanding and planning? Would it be easier to say the presence of an adversary is a factor to consider in the selection of a COG or just leave it out of the discussion entirely?”

“I need to think about that.”   

“Well think about this. What is a more logical determinant of a COG, accomplishing an objective, or an adversarial context? In other words, why must I have an adversary to have a COG? Isn’t having an objective and something with the critical capability to attain the objective enough?”

“Ugh… Okay. I think accomplishing and objective might be more important. But, an adversary is still a factor to consider.”

“Yes. We agree. It is a factor, but not an absolute requirement. Okay let’s move on. What about this statement,

‘Since COGs exist only in unitary systems, a CCMD TCP or FCP may not have a single COG, as it may be conducting operations along multiple lines that by themselves are not connected (from the US, they may be looked at as a connected system, but they themselves do not act as a single entity).’[v]

Bad writing aside, we really don’t understand this. Is this a copy and paste error? What are unitary systems? Don’t we encourage a systems perspective that looks at the interrelationships of multiple systems in an environment?

“Ah yes sir.”

“What is a unitary system? We even asked outside experts what a unitary system was. Guess what the best answer was.”

"Ugh… I don’t know.”

"The Borg Collective, I’m not making this up. Moreover, they’re fictional![vi]  Besides what does a unitary system, if they exist, have to do with anything anyway?”

“I was afraid you would ask about that. You know none of the other reviewers asked about that.”

“Maybe they are smarter than us and understood it; or they didn’t and were afraid to show their ignorance. We suspect they just missed it because they’re human. But you wrote it, so enlighten us.”

“I think I will just delete that section. If you don’t mind.”

“We think that is a good idea Doctrine Writer. Thank you for stopping by. Let’s chat again. Soon.”

This fictional conversation occurs routinely in Professional Military Education classrooms and hallways. I even asked recognized experts on the center of gravity concept, Dr. Milan Vego of the Naval War College and Dr. Antulio Echevarria of the Army War College about unitary systems, neither had a good answer.[vii] That suggests a flaw in the doctrine writing and review process for Joint Publications.

We may have to live with a horse built into a camel, but should not have to accept a camel with a trunk. Our challenge is to the camel as horse like as possible while keeping the bureaucratic processes from adding or camouflaging trunks. I do not have specific answers to this challenge, but I have some observations that may suggest a way ahead.  

The operating force has options regarding doctrine. They can follow, ignore, or adapt doctrine to suit their environment. Trunks are not a problem for them because they can ignore them, if they do not suit their needs, nor does the force have to explain trunks. To them, trunks are doctrinal curiosities, nothing to be concerned with. 

The PME institutions have to teach and explain doctrine as written. When a student asks about a trunk, the instructor can say, “I don’t know, it makes no sense, so just ignore it.”

Or the instructor can do intellectual gymnastics bending reason into a summersault trying to explain it. The former damages doctrine’s creditability, the latter the instructor’s. Neither are good options.

SMEs need to be involved in writing doctrine, especially in the early developmental phases. Perhaps by soliciting a team of recognized and regarded SMEs to write the initial drafts of a particular subject. With a more active role in doctrine development, SMEs can help the forces better understand the horse, built into a camel that hopefully hasn’t grown a trunk. Let’s at least begin the conversation.

End Notes

[i] The actual doctrine writer shall remain nameless.

[ii] Department of Defense (DoD), Joint Publication (JP) 5-0 Joint Planning, U.S. Department of Defense Washington DC 2017, IV-23

[iii] Dr. Joe Strange and COL Richard Iron, “Understanding Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities, online at pp.1 (accessed 15 December 2011).

[iv] Department of Defense (DoD), Joint Publication (JP) 5-0 Joint Planning, U.S. Department of Defense Washington DC 2017, IV-23

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Credit to Dr. Richard Anderson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for this helpful insight.

[vii] Email discussion subject Since COGs exist in unitary systems with Dr. Echeverria June 2 2017.  Phone conversation with Dr. Vego , May 19 2017.


Your rating: None


I've often wondered, do ISIS, AQ, NK, PLA, IRGC, Hezbollah, and other enemies/adversaries/malign actors/VEOs/TCOs have discussions and debates about doctrine, terms of reference and such?

You bring up a good question. Unfortunately, I can't forget the article by a rather arrogant young Captain at West Point shortly after 9/11, who stated there is no way terrorists can beat us because we have doctrine and they don't. He was right about their inability to beat us, but it has nothing to do with our doctrine. A counter argument can be made and supported that our doctrine is what is hindering us from beating them.

As the author of this article points out, our doctrine tends to hinder logical thought instead of enable it. Unfortunately, the pseudo-intellectuals in the military will cling to Clausewitz's random thoughts on war as though God handed these insights directly to Clausewitz. In fact, they were informed opinion, opinion that tended to evolve over time. Unlike his devoted followers, Clausewitz truly was intellectual, he challenged his own ideas. When I reflect on all the brilliant insights Clausewitz had, I wonder why our military defaults to making the center of gravity idea (which Dr. Strange bastardized into something of little utility beyond targeting, which neither a plan or strategy) the central idea that our plans must evolve around? I suspect because it is simple, and planning too often defaults to coloring between the lines. Not doctrine's intended purpose, but too often an unintended effect.

I doubt any of the non-state actors you mentioned have debates over terms of reference, but I suspect they do have discussions over doctrine (best practices), even if they don't call it that. I know they have discussions over strategy, which ultimately is what guides their actions. They clearly are not better at this we are, but the fact they can hold their hold against us should be cause for concern that we may not have right.

With all the real intellectual capital in our country, and within the coalition, I suspect we could do much better if we sidelined the COG concept, and instead focused on developing new strategic approaches informed by 15 plus years of learning what doesn't work. Notice how the "new" Afghanistan strategy tends to look like the old one? We have to stop hitting the refresh button, our computer (mind) has a serious malware problem.

Bill M,
I do not disagree with your conclusion about intellectual capital. However, there are a few points I think need to be pushed back on/ clarified. Statements like, "A counter argument can be made and supported that our doctrine is what is hindering us from beating them." and the discussions about items like COGs leave something important out. We do not use them. As an OC/T, I watched commanders crack on more junior officers for even attempting to use something as simple as doctrinal terminology correctly.

It would be impossible to know if our doctrine is holding us back. We have completely violated our doctrine in (at least) most things. The reason the new plan looks like the old is because an underwhelming percentage of units actually plan. Note writing a CONOP based off the shell of the shell of the last CONOP and making a nondoctrinal list of endstate is not a plan. This was also pointed out in Tom Ricks book The Gamble. I recently read an article about mission command the author of that article again failed to realize we do not practice mission command instead we are highly micromanaged to the point that a Russian General during WW I would scream foul.

As for how we write doctrine, it is a mess. I say that as someone who has participated in the process. As in I personally sat down and rewrote parts of a manual and contributed critiques and vignettes etc. to current manuals. It is so bad that on day one of class I tell my students that if they can point to their answer in another current manual, then they will receive credit. I have to do this because Army doctrine contradicts itself and changes the meanings of words between manuals.

Recently I had some conversations with some higher ranking 5000-pound heads and unfortunately found out my ranting on this is not unfounded. It is too bad we do not have a whole command that handles making sure our doctrine is useful and not contradictory. We could even be put that command in charge of training us on it.

I suspect we could do much better if we sidelined the COG concept, and instead focused on developing new strategic approaches informed by 15 plus years of learning what doesn't work.

Thanks for the response, Bill. It certainly does seem that we've been missing the central issue - strategy - while searching for the perfect operational plans and tactical approaches. I hope we have leaders imaginative enough to get it right, or moral enough to get out.

The modern study of doctrine's main purpose (much like most grad school attendance) is to warehouse senior officers. It also puts a sheen of "intellectualism" on a group of fairly simple activities- bomb the village, build the bridge, feed the troops, guard the airfield etc.

For example debates about COGs with the near mandatory reference to Clausewitz are simply time fillers. A harmless enough hobby unless the participants are costing the tax payers millions and confusing themselves (see FM 3-24) and the pols.

The sad part is this non_fictional conversation happens in not only in professional schools, but in organizations responsible for developing real world plans. Too many staff officers default to mimicking flawed doctrine without critical thought. This simplistic and flawed approach to thinking has been the bane of our approach to countering insurgencies and terrorism also. We have plans mindlessly constructed with simplistic quotes tied to hearts and minds, building networks etc., and the same tired lines of effort that are all too often cut and pasted from existing plans with no critical thought on what they really mean. There is a reason the conflicts we're in are long, long wars.