Resurrection is Emancipation: Exploring “Strategy” as a Dead Metaphor

Brasidas…took up a defensive position on Cerdylium…on high ground across the river…with good views in all directions, so that no move made by Cleon and his army could escape notice.    – Thucydides[1]

A perspective, or overall orientation, emerges from realizing the heuristic potential of a guiding metaphor; it leads to the formulation of motives or interpretations … [and] contains a ‘program of action’ for responding….  We name one thing in terms of another, treat the name as a realistic perspective, and act as if it applies literally to a given situation.

– Robert L. Ivie[2]

The word strategy has been literalized to the point that it serves unquestioned as the raison d’être of US Defense Department war colleges.  So pervasive is the term that the present author could not find a single military journal article attempting to challenge the expression as anything but quintessential to the professional of arms.  This essay seeks to de-literalize the word—theorizing that its meaning has been morphologically displaced from an ancient Greek wartime phenomenon.  The goal here is to emancipate thinking about strategy by surmising its multi-disciplinary conceptualizations and finding evidence that, somewhere along the line, strategy became a dormant (if not dying or dead) metaphor.  Indeed, with the backdrop of Donald A. Schön’s theory of displaced concepts, one can postulate about the morphology of strategy – a word that, through networks of exchanged meaning, has been recontextualized since the ancient Greek phenomenon appeared.[3]  

A Theory of Concept Displacement

When faced with seemingly intractable situations, humans draw on metaphors (partial meanings) to make sense of them.  Better put, metaphors help “reorganize alien realms.”[4]  Schön’s theory of sensemaking (i.e. displacement of concepts) is encapsulated in his own concise description:

Theories are selected for displacement on a number of bases: the gifts of the various overlapping cultures involved, the metaphors underlying the ready-made theories in terms of which the new situations are already partly structured, and the demands of those situations—that is, the aptness of the old theory, taken as a projective model, to provide new solutions for the problematic aspects of those situations.[5]                                                 

Hence, strategy can be investigated as an extended metaphor; and, in doing so, will spur critical and creative inquiry upon its meaning structures.  The hope of this essay is to emancipate military practitioners and war scholars to see merit in the redesigning of otherwise institutionalized, one-dimensional framing of problem settings.[6]

Only a handful of writers have attempted to linguistically unravel the military sensemakings we have built around the phenomenon of war.[7]  Some provide morphological insight by examining how others have borrowed meaning from the context of war.  For example, cognitive linguists have marveled at the daily use of terms normally associated with the logics of war.[8]  The uses of war metaphors seem endless (metaphors highlighted in italics):

Muster support for the war on poverty

NFL team’s offensive line

Apple outmaneuvers Microsoft

The leadership qualities of General George S. Patton

Bureaucratic infighting

The tactics of partisan politics

The attack on American family values

A Madison Avenue marketing blitzkrieg

A political campaign

 Defense attorney

Equally intriguing is the way other knowledge disciplines have influenced the logics of war through what has become a “metaphoric network:”[9]

The Fog and Friction of war

Military professionals practice the management of violence

Department of Defense business processes

Iraq and Afghanistan surges

The Cold War

Psychological warfare

The enemy Center of Gravity

Irregular warfare

Military as an element of power

Fourth generation warfare

How does this displacement of concepts happen?  Specifically, how did it happen with strategy?    

Original Meaning as an Observable Phenomenon

The linguistic context of the word strategy seems to stem from an ancient Greek military officer responsible for the outcome of a battle or war -- stratégos (hence the Greek root prefix “strat-” or “level” and suffix “-égos” or “being”).  How high ranking military officers literally directed their forces in war is encapsulated in the original meaning of the word strategy.  One can only speculate how the subjective meanings we derive today were extended and displaced from the objective reality of a senior officer of a Greek archipelagos’ city-state army, standing on the high ground, able to physically see, hear, and smell the Peloponnesian battlefield.  Perceiving the flow of the battle with his senses, the general was tactically able (the meaning of tactics is derived from the related the Greek word taktikós, which translates to “orders”) to bring some order to the battle in his favor.  The army’s purpose (or telos – Greek for goal) was set by his employer – the city state.  The original meaning of strategy, then, was the general who literally sensed the events unfolding from a vantage point, created favorable conditions through tactics, and was motivated by his city-state’s wartime goals (Figure 1). 

Figure 1.  Over time, the meaning of strategy includes extended meanings and their associated logics, rooted in the base metaphor, stratégos (literally, the military ranking individual that gives orders [taktikós] to an army in battle, from a high ground vantage point, to achieve goals (telos).

Strategy as a Metaphor (Carrier of Meaning) for Other Knowledge Disciplines

These and other associated meanings of strategy have since been projected into other knowledge disciplines such as business, international relations, public administration, and, sports, connected by the emerging transdisciplinary “strategic studies.”  In time, when motivated with the demands of new, unfamiliar situations, other disciplines engaged in heuristic searches for explanations, finding logical-resemblances to the “work of the general” that include:  having the hierarchical authority level that comes with high rank; developing a vision toward the future, as one would sense from a vantage position; finding ways to bring order their institution; and, setting goals that define success.  These extended meanings continued into far ranging derivative theories for action in the particular field.  The resembled “war logics” of strategy were projected into other knowledge disciplines and recontextualized (Figure 2).

Figure 2.  Examples of displaced and extended meanings that serve the interdisciplinary studies of strategy (a.k.a. “strategic studies”), re-contextualizing around other problem settings (e.g., a business activity, international diplomacy, public office, or sports situations).

From the Schönian perspective, the morphological process affecting the meaning of strategy seems to be anchored in the development of theories of action through multifaceted contextualizations and recontextualizations of how and what to do when faced with important, novel situations.[10]   In plainer English, knowledge communities adapt the meaning of strategy as they reflect in and on the new situations they face and reconstitute its meaning.  The emergent contexts warrant further displacement of the meaning of strategy and dynamically shared meaning among the disciplines (various contexts) and layers of new associated metaphors are themselves extended and displaced in the emergent metaphoric network.  The displaced ideas of strategy that took on elaborated meanings in other fields are projected back and forth with military studies.  Extended language constructions (e.g., the noun, strategy, becomes an adjective, “strategic”) emerge in the military and other communities of practice, such as:  “strategic leaders;” “strategic vision;” “strategic end state;” and, “strategic planning.”  These extended and displaced meanings are today found in the highest level conceptualizations of all US Defense Department war colleges and are elaborated to the point of serving as their raison d’être (Figure 3).[11]

Figure 3.  Extensions and displacements make strategy a “stew” of an interactive, generative, and eventually mutually-referencing network of meaning.

The Significance of Extension and Displacement

Strategy can be framed as a morphological stew of interactive, generative metaphors that eventually becomes “mutually-referencing” in the emerging of a relatively insular interdisciplinary network of “strategic studies.”[12]   There are at least three important and overlapping implications:  (1) The resulting epistemological frustration (lack of closure) is continuously generated through the metaphoric network of strategic studies; (2) The potential emancipation that institutional reflexivity could afford; and, (3) The challenge of reframing in problem settings.

Epistemological Frustration.  The interdisciplinary exchanges of meaning that occur in the face of novel or emergent situations (in the context of business, international relations, public administration, sports, military, and so forth) represent what may be for some a disconcerting appreciation for the fluctuating and transforming view of the meaning of strategy.  Evidence of epistemological frustration about “what strategy is” is widespread in various disciplines that entertain the concept.[13]   Schön’s theory of concept displacement teaches us that there can never be an answer to “what strategy is.”  To the positivist (someone who believes the only legitimate knowledge is that which empirically and positively predicts causality), this conclusion seems exasperating.[14]  

Alternatively, the interdisciplinary extensions of meaning that occur in the face of novel or emergent situations (in the context of business, international relations, public administration, sports, military, and so forth) represent a fluctuating and transforming, social constructionist view of strategy.  Situations that are volatile, uncertain, and complex defy a stable causal science of human intervention, so the demands of positivism and its hope for progressive knowledge can never be met.  To the constructionist, the epistemology of strategy is and always will be fluid and ambiguous.  This admission, that the word strategy is equivocal, becomes the constructionist’s pathway toward institutional reflexivity. 

Institutional Reflexivity.  To reiterate, Schön offers that theories are rooted in the logics that metaphors provide.  In institutions, base metaphors have widespread “rhetorical control” over the theoretical framing of situations as problems.[15]  In institutions, “the origin of the confusion may lie in the inadequacy” of the metaphor-based theories “by which we try and order” phenomena.[16]  Hence, the reflexivity process would explore the assumptive connections between the non-literal logics imbedded in extended and displaced metaphors that drive theory-construction in the institution.  Institutions (that also comprise metaphoric networks that Thomas Kuhn conceptualized as a “paradigm” of a “community of practitioners”), cannot easily “step outside” the logic of the base metaphors that drive those theories.[17]

What Oswald Spengler calls "historical pseudomorphosis" can blind the institution to alternatives – spirally-referencing, reifications eventually create a narrow, homogeneous form of reasoning and what follows are the associated pitfalls of cognitive dissonance, groupthink, single-loop learning, unidisciplinary sensemakings, and so forth.[18]   The cure is reflexivity —"…an awareness of the situatedness of scientific knowledge and an understanding of the researcher and research community from which knowledge has appeared."[19]  Institutional reflexivity is related to the idea of community members exercising practical skepticism about the esoteric knowledge and values that the institution would otherwise hold dear.  In a reflexive institution, collective-consciousness requires not only suspending belief in what may be dogmatic assertions but also admitting (humbly) that the institution can never know how to obtain positive knowledge.  Perhaps initially frustrating to institutions that have been culturally situated in a positivist epistemology, this more critical view may serve to emancipate the collective mind and stimulate searches for linguistic frames outside the otherwise assumed esoteric boundaries.   In the present case, the logic displaced from the literal work of the ancient Greek general has served as the metaphoric foundation for large-scale educational institutions of strategy, namely, US war colleges.     

Without reflexivity, institutions tend to reify meanings – they create what appears to be an objective reality associated with the base metaphor.[20]  In the case of US war colleges, the idea that education about war can be addressed at levels (linked back to Greek “strata”) feeds the reification of “levels of war” which are presently explained as tactical (lowest), operational (mid-range), and strategic (highest).  Hence, entry-level officer education is molded around instruction in tactics, mid-range officer education is oriented on operations, and the more senior officers attend war colleges to study strategy.  Logics related to levels also emerge and Piagetian[21] constructs such as “officer development” follow the logic of strata – enlisted and junior officers (babies and children), mid-grade officers (adolescents) and high-ranking officers (adults and seniors).  The logic includes this sampling of taken-for-granted assumptions that a more reflexive institution may want to challenge:

  • One cannot think strategically without going through the lower levels of development (tactics and operations);
  • Only the senior-ranking officials are empowered as strategic leaders; and,
  • The hierarchy of learning objectives that makes up military educational curricula needs to follow both the promotion system of empowerment and the levels of war.

The Art of Reframing.  In that regard, Professor Ray Holland defines “transdisciplinary reflexivity” as going beyond the traditional view of “unidisciplinary” logics and into multi-level reflexive analysis.  Hence, transdisciplinary reflexivity on the idea of strategy may include the following:   

  • Assume the knowledge of strategy is not subject to “scientific methods” (e.g., subject to rigorous natural science methodologies, such as reductionism and levels of analysis).
  • Explore the interpretations of strategy-like terms from the view of other cultures, institutions, and/or knowledge disciplines (outside “strategic studies”) and hermeneutically consider their associated interpretive and symbolic meanings.
  • Observe how disagreement with one’s own institutional view of strategy (or arguing the view that “strategy does not exist” outside the institutional reification of the term) may result in social alienation of those who express those disagreements.
  • Notice when and if the practice of individual or rogue-group reflexivity about strategy is oppressed/suppressed by those more powerful members of any and all institutions that study strategy.[22]

As the institution becomes receptive to reflexive activities, the critical and creative searches for alternative frames become more favorable in light of internal politics.[23]  Openness to new meaning constructions across other, less familiar, knowledge disciplines may be a key to solving “the poverty of words available” when faced with unfamiliar or alien situations.[24]  When members of the institution accept that “their” science of strategy involves the critical mindfulness of how the displacement of concepts works, a Kuhnian “paradigm shift” becomes not only seen as possible, but can be rigorously pursued and rewarded.[25]  The meaning of strategy can be “redesigned” at will by projecting other frames of reference into it.  Alternatively, the word can be subjugated to other useful partial “meaning carriers” (base metaphors) that can help frame or reframe problem settings.

In other words, a more reflexive institution may concentrate efforts at designing creative ways to construct sensemakings about messy situations at hand and critically dismiss (at least temporarily) the idea of strategy in search of other frames—even those that may be available from other cultures.  For example, one promising extra-cultural view of military efficacy is provided by French sinologist François Jullien.  He carefully portrays the Greco-Western dominant contextualization of strategy as quite foreign to the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of Chinese Confucianism.  In lieu of ends-based rationality, typically associated with Greco-teleology, the Chinese developed a very different way of reasoning that is opportunistic (reminiscent of a Heraclitean “in-the-flow” ontology) and reflects the dynamic “competing balance” (e.g., a yin and yang) view of time, space, and knowledge.[26]  Whereas Clausewitz illustrated the metaphor of “friction” as walking in water, the Chinese school contextualizes very differently:  “[Water] has no constant shape.  There is nothing softer and weaker than water, yet nothing is more penetrating and capable of attacking the hard and strong.”[27]

A reflexive institution may also seek sources of reframing outside its dominant metaphoric network (e.g., outside the institutions that have otherwise “fed” on the extensions and displacements of strategy).  For example, the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) is expressly founded for “multidisciplinary collaborations … of complex adaptive systems [that are] critical to addressing key environmental, technological, biological, economic, and political challenges.”[28]  Here the dominant metaphor is derived (originally) from the subatomic sciences which spawned the relatively new interdisciplinary science of complexity.[29]  At SFI, strategy is hardly a mentionable idiom and instead the concepts of “perpetual novelty” and “endlessly unfolding surprise” are key extensions of the original complex subatomic phenomena that serve as base metaphors.[30]  At SFI, rather than focusing on the romantic hope of the empowered “strategic leader” who, with “strategic vision and strategic planning,” achieves the nation’s “strategic end state,” attention shifts to extended metaphors of complexity -- such as those associated with “self-organizing systems.”[31]

The purpose of the more reflexive, design-of-meaning approach, involving searches multidisciplinary and multi-institutional frames is not to seek “the best answer.”  The ideal is to stay open to multiple frames, “triangulating” on the novel situation at hand, and never expecting closure.[32]  Some traditional military practitioners and researchers may complain that this openness to designing frames with multiple metaphoric bases is impractical and is the prerogative of college professors who observe intractable social messes from a safe distance and produce this kind of academic solipsism.  After all, how can one extract a “utilitarian art” associated with institutional reflexivity and the continuous search for multiple metaphoric frames (such as from other cultural perspectives or complexity)?   This is a question that could arguably lead to a renaissance in military science and explore how the institution could become more skeptical in debates over professional practice and reflect more critically on the phenomenon, war.        


[1] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner (New York: Penguin, 1954), pp. 350-351.

[2] Robert L. Ivie, “Cold War and the Rhetorical Metaphor: A Framework of Criticism,” p. 73, in Martin J. Medhurst, Robert L. Ivie, Philip Wander, and Robert L. Scott, Cold War Rhetoric: Strategy, Metaphor, and Ideology 2d ed. (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1997), pp. 71-79.

[3] In the present study, the author takes a semasiological approach to linguistics.  For an onomasiological approach to the evolution of the meaning of strategy, see Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010).

[4] Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan, Sociological Paradigms and Organizational Analysis: Elements of the Sociology of Corporate Life (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1979), citing the works of Alfred Schutz, p. 244. 

[5] Donald A. Schön, Displacement of Concepts.  (London: Tavistock, 1963), p. xi. 

[6] Max Black, "More About Metaphor," p. 25, in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony (New York: Cambridge, 1993), pp. 19-41. 

[7] Richard E. Neustadt, Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time:  The Uses of History for Decision Making (New York: The Free Press, 1986); Yuen F. Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1992); Philip A Talbot, “Corporate Generals: The Military Metaphor of Strategy,” Irish Journal of Management 24, 2003, pp.1-10; Douglas R. Stickle, Malignants in the Body Politic: Redefining War Through Metaphor (Maxwell Air Force base: Air University Press, 2004); Alistair Mutch, “Organization Theory and Military Metaphor: Time for Reappraisal?” Organization, vol. 13, no. 6 (2006), pp. 751-769; Frederica Ferrari, “Metaphor at Work in the Analysis of Political Discourse: Investigating a ‘Preventive War’ Persuasion Strategy,” Discourse & Society, vol. 18, no. 5 (2007), pp. 603-625; and, Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (New York:  Columbia University, 2009).

[8] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980), pp. 4-7. 

[9] Paul Ricœur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multidisciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, Trans. Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1977), p. 244. 

[10] John G. Mitchell, Re-Visioning Educational Leadership: A Phenomenological Approach (New York: Garland, 1990).

[11] In all of the US War Colleges’ mission statements, the word strategy or some derivative is included.  

[12] Donald A. Schön, "Generative Metaphor and Social Policy," in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony (Ed.)  (New York: Cambridge, 1993), pp. 137-163. 

[13] See, for example, Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans, and Planners (New York: Free Press, 1994). 

[14] Harriet Martineau, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Compte (London: John Chapman, 1853), p.5. 

[15] Martin Kilduff, Ajay Mehra, and Mary Dunn, “From Blue Sky Research to Problem Solving: A Philosophy of Science Theory of New Knowledge Production,” p. 308, Academy of Management Review, vol. 36, no. 2 (2011), pp. 297-317. 

[16] James G. March and Johan P. Olsen, Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics (New York: Free Press, 1989), p. 12.

[17] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3d ed.) (Chicago:  University of Chicago, 1996). 

[18] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: Oxford University, 1939), p. 268. 

[19] Cynthia Hardy, Nelson Phillips, and Stewart Clegg, “Reflexivity in Organization and Management Theory: A Study of the Production of the Research ‘Subject,’” p. 554," Human Relations, vol. 54, no. 5 (2001), pp. 531-560.  

[20] Burrell and Morgan, Sociological Paradigms, p. 266.

[21] Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was a developmental psychologist and a self-professed epistemologist, his research concerned how schemata are socially constructed, who was well-known for his theory of human cognitive development.  See, for example, his The Child's Construction of Reality (Oxon: Basic Books, 1954).

[22] Ray Holland, “Reflexivity,” p. 474, Human Relations, vol. 52, no. 4 (1999), pp. 463-484. 

[23] Donald A. Schön and Martin Rein, Frame Reflection: The Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies (New York:  Basic Books, 1994). 

[24] Ricœur, The Rule of Metaphor, pp. 106-107.

[25] Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 92. 

[26] François Jullien, A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking, trans. Janet Lloyd, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 2004). 

[27] David Lai, Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, SHI (Carlisle: US Army Strategic Studies Institute, 2004), p. 4.

[28] Santa Fe Institute (http://www.santafe.edu/about/). 

[29] M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Touchstone, 1992). 

[30] Waldrop, p. 147 and 165.

[31] Waldrop, p. 102. 

[32] Steve Woolgar, Knowledge and Reflexivity (London: Sage, 1988).

 

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Comments

What is interesting about self-analysis is that it leads nowhere - it is an art form in itself.

- A. Brookner

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Analysis does need to lead somewhere on occasion.

When I was at the War College they had a program to develop strategists. I said to the commandant, "I'm not so sure you can do that. I think what you can do is identify potential strategists and then work to increase their knowledge." And the overarching requirement is intellectual curiosity. If you have intellectual curiosity, you keep asking "why does this happen? why does this work?" Then you have at least the potential to develop into a strategic thinker. But absent that spark, absent that desire, it's almost impossible. You can make second-rate copies, but I don't think you can ever make a strategic thinker of someone who doesn't have the innate intellectual curiosity about the way the world works and the way things happen.

http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/conversations/Summers/summers1.html

When I first started commenting on certain "COIN" blogs, I was intensely curious (I'm NOT saying that I'd make a great strategist, that's not the point my comment!) about the utter lack of curiosity on the "AfPak" region in terms of questioning certain basic "tenets".

What I mean is that every hoary "Strobe Talbott" Brooking's Institution cliche about "South Asian" regional motivation was trotted out and never once examined carefully, from COINDINISTA TO COINTRA (okay, maybe not COINTRA's), from Clausewitzians to post-modernists, never a thorough examination of the American or NATO mindset toward the region, which has been overly influenced by its long time military ally in the South Asian region. In a way, all these groups arguing over the future of the American military fell into the same generic lines of thinking: "country X behaves that way because of Y...." And over all the gallons of ink spilled, no real grappling with why everyone thought country X "behaved" the way it did. That basic set up, everyone just followed the same line until fairly recently.

At what point does the military intellectual complex become interested in the world as it is and not just as a foil for whatever latest theory is being peddled: 4GW, COIN, whatever?

If I wanted to write a shorter comment, I guess I should have just written "strategy is dead."

The ability to look at a situation, find what is critically important for American interests, concoct a plan that doesn't bankrupt us, might be workable on the ground in some fashion, and takes into account American peculiarities, seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind the higher up you go in the American (or NATO, etc) military food chain.

That would be my outsider on-the-couch analysis of institutional thinking.

Infinity Journal has a nice article a bit on this topic by Matthew Cavanaugh:

Strategic Education for All Junior Officers: Building Morale and Enabling Adaptability

(Although, that's an Afghan-centric comment, on Iraq, plenty of people seemed to have warned that things would be a problem if we tried to do them "on the cheap.")

PS: Why is some postmodernism so hugely orientalist? The Indians and Chinese aren't interested in end-states or outcomes? Says who?

V. e P.
I think I understand your argument. Symbolism is important in the broadest sense. However, in the present study, I am taking a semasiological approach to linguistics (and focussing on "borrowed meaning" or metaphoric reasoning) suggested somewhere between Schön (1963) and Lakoff & Johnson (1980).

For an onomasiological approach (to which I think you are referring) to the evolution of the meaning of strategy, see Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010).

While I like the hermeneutic approach here - something, btw, which is seldom seen in American insitutions of social and behavioral science - I would respectfully admonish the author to dig in to the writings of Leo Strauss (I would start with his 1956 lecture on Existentialism), Eric Voegelin (Anamnesis), Hans-Georg Gadamer (Truth and Method) to confirm or deny the hypothesis that Western thought is rigid and inflexible by contrast with its ever-too-cool Eastern foil. If you are really out paradigm shifting, a reference to Karl Popper's "The Open Society and its Enemies" and "The Poverty of Historicism" offers an alternative view compatible with leftist presuppositions.

Why undergo this academic exercise ? Is there something wrong with the model this article presents ? No, the model is valid enough, at least it is internally and logically consistent. The problem, as an intelligent reading of Thomas Kuehn's work might suggest (I very much like Kuehn's skewing of Popper in "The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change"), is that words do not merely have nominal value, such that "rose" and "skunk" can mean the same thing in the proper cultural context. We need common terms with standard definitions and shared rules of grammar to communicate. Ontology is all the rage these days, but when we hit bottom, any ontology is just another form of language.

So what hope would I offer to those who crave to think out of the box, who love your neologisms, who are wedded to the coining of new terms, whether or not they represent new ideas ? Just this. The box is just as real as you are. The conception of strategy is the being of strategy, its "essence" if you find the language of Aristotle and Aquinas sympatico. The author here has outlined a very fine conception of strategy, while asserting its non-existence.

Perhaps I am overreacting to the postmodern use of the term "metaphor", which in some circles implies something that exists only in thought, but not in reality. This idea is not confined to the positivists. If the author had used the term "symbol" rather than "metaphor", I expect I would be less grieved. For we all understand the interchangeability of symbols. By its very nature a symbol stands for something else. Not so with metaphors, which take on a life of their own in the manner the author suggests. Use "strategy" as the word symbol it was meant for you to use.

"The hierarchy of learning objectives that makes up military educational curricula needs to follow both the promotion system of empowerment and the levels of war"

- perhaps my favorite line out of this excellent article. The sentence above is deep; it addresses from several directions the preferred paradigm of the military as well as some key (and harmful) phenomenon.

- our educational curricula largely operates from what Pap termed the 'positivist' position; also described by many as 'functionalist', 'reductionist', and 'classical scientific'...ultimately we embrace the metaphors of Clausewitz and Jomini as well as the methodological and epistemological underpinnings associated with both western military theorists.

- academically, if you question this paradigm, generally you are marginalized or after some discussion expected to return back to the doctrinal approach because doing it by the book has relevance (and some risk avoidance)...and in other cases the "Dead Carl Club" may chase you down with lead pipes through the cornfields ala Planet of the Apes and eliminate you. This is unfortunate because we as a military are forced to function within a paradigm that has some utility in some situations, but never works well in all situations...particularly the messy, adaptive ones.

- the entire promotion and rank/status system of the military tends to reward age and falsely equate it with "truthiness." Granted, there is a fundamental (and linear-causality wins here) reason humans do this; experience is valuable, often. A 2LT cannot out-perform a Colonel on running a military organization, but that misses the point. In many ways, the young officer is not yet a victim of the military paradigm and has the chance to see things from another perspective. I do not suggest unit commanders huddle their young officers up and write down everything they say in the hopes of capturing nuggets of wisdom; instead, how do we get young officers to MAINTAIN their ability to think from outside the traditional military paradigm, to PRACTICE what Pap calls "institutional reflexivity", and MAINTAIN this ability to phase-shift between paradigms throughout their military career. Thus, a senior officer steeped with experience would not necessarily dismiss the perspective of a young LT, or ever play the "eagle beats bars" card without good reason. She might recognize that while the LT is potentially a victim of ignorance and inexperience, the senior officer is also a victim too; one of institutionalisms and the trappings of using a single frame while relying on the hierarchical structure of the organization to force a process along.

- It is odd that the babes are taught tactics, middle-aged given operational level activities, and only the seniors play with strategy...what would happen if we reversed it? Could we?

- one last thing on metaphors; Pap again raises some fascinating points on our lexicon and where words orginate from, and how meanings change. It is strange how a term like "horsepower" is unquestioned today; we do not even realize it when we use it to discuss combustion engines on why we say horsepower and not something else. It could have been 'donkeypower' or 'mulepower' if conditions were different...

great article!

bz

Ben,

It seems that in a way you are making an argument against your argument. The military education system is what it is, but that doesn't prevent younger officers from developing themselves through professional reading, discourse, and thinking both critically and creatively. If the higher level defense schools actually taught strategy effectively (assuming our strategic level of planning is even a viable concept), then one would assume we would perform better. Pushing younger officers into the same system sooner will only push them into the current ineffective thinking methodology or group think that our schools produce now. Not sure, but I thought that was part of the author's point when he wrote,

"Extensions and displacements make strategy a “stew” of an interactive, generative, and eventually mutually-referencing network of meaning."

I do tend to think that an older person who keeps an open mind and has remained curious their entire life, instead of conforming to organizational myths and paradigms, will bring a richer base of experiences and questions to the discussion than a younger person, but it is personality dependent. I have seen O-6s that simply went through life with the following priorities: me, my rater, and me. They never expressed an original thought, and simply promoted the party line their rater was pushing. It appears to be a safe model for a mediocre career. On the other hand I have seen many brilliant O6s and above and simply laugh when I hear the continued chorus of 20 somethings smugly suggest they're superior. I also see a level of group think with our younger officers that have "blindly" embraced our so called new COIN doctrine and consider themselves profits of a new knowledge base their seniors just don't understand, although many have already been down the trail in the past. I consider many of these younger officers a product of our modern and liberal education system that produces it own form of group think that discards nuance and in some cases viciously reacts to different opinions. The real issue has little to do with younger officers versus senior officers, the issue is our society as a whole lacks the ability to think without considerable bias.

I have always been unsatisfied with the answers to the questions "What are tactics?" "What is Strategy?" "What is the difference?" The answers usually fell into the category terms-of-art, which made them mostly useless. Thank you COL (R) Paparone for taking the topic to definition and description and away from the simplistic attribute assignment (e.g. strategy is [list of attributes]).

One comment on the implications of this article's concluding thoughts when it comes to national/war policy. The implication is mostly political.

A reframing/reflexive approach to planning and policy is still in need of a first-principle to guide it. At lower strata the role of the first-principle is taken by the higher's intent. Theoretically, that intent does not need justification for the purposes of effectiveness at the lower level. Using a reframing/reflexive mindset, the lower stratum can more effectively realize that intent. However, that first-principle has a chain originating above the immediate "higher." That is, if one accepts this way of thought, one would also expect that it be applied to the highest order of decision making. Otherwise one must be content with a certain degree of cognitive dissonance where the most effective way of thought at one level doesn't apply at others. (note: way of thought, not method of planning, or method of anything else. This is a critical distinction in that it favors a uniform philosophy of thought in the entire enterprise. This philosophical uniformity is what I think the article is proposing)

The implication is serious because it would result in explanations of what is meant by "victory". When victory, undefined, is the raison d'etre of the action, no manner of reframing will result in a clearer path than what could be accomplished by blind action. Other notions will be promoted to first-principles such as security or human rights. This will guide actions to promote security and/or human rights, even if their overzealous promotion would actually defeat the purpose of victory.

For example, consider the following scenario. Two tribes in a particularly lawless area of occupied territory (generic, not Palestine) enter a dispute. It turns violent, ratcheting up the overall violence in the occupied territory, but still remaining mostly local. Careful reflection on the context could conclude that letting the two tribes duke it out for a few months while keeping tabs on spill over may actually open a tactical door to longer term stability that would otherwise remain closed. However, because security has assumed the role of first-principle, it would compel intervention. Reframing then, applied to the intervention plan, may make the intervention more effective but, perversely, counteract the overall goal of stability. As it is, the first-principles in the chain of principles (I know this is an ironic use of "principles," but bear with me) were not arrived at through a deliberate definition of purpose for the entire enterprise. A deliberate effort that itself applied the reframing/reflexive thought philosophy.

I don't have solutions or suggestions. I wish merely to point out the implications of promoting this way of thought (which I favor completely!). In essence we do this today by invoking ideologies such as democracy and liberal economy and such. But these are not the purpose of the ultimate guide, which is US policy. They aren't, because we are not uniform in invoking them. In essence, we invoke them when it suits us. So the ultimate question is, what do these invocations suit? Are they suiting our national "mood"? or Are they suiting our national agreed on purpose (e.g. as a 19th Cent Brit might exclaim "for the empire!")? What is the first-principle driving the entire enterprise or does it exist for its own sake?

Didn't mean to get metaphysical. But I do think that our collective inability to convincingly articulate a common purpose in the government, even if it is at some super 1,000,000 foot level, leaves us mostly to act on moods derived from the public and our leadership. Which, in turn, stains our efforts to apply thoughtful decision making philosophies at lower strata.

This article is one of the most outstanding articles that has ever been published at the SWJ Empire. As we say in Alabama "Ya dun Goood!"