Small Wars Journal

Strategy, The Art of Everything Else

Strategy, The Art of Everything Else

by Cameron Schaefer, Capt, USAF

War does not escape the laws of our old friend Hegel. It is in a state of perpetual becoming.

-Robert Saint-Loup, 1916 in Letter to Proust

It seems to me that part of the nature of strategy is that one must come to it indirectly.

It's like the deer that you spot in the field behind your house when you're a kid. You want so badly to run right up to it, yet if you do so you'll quickly scare it away. So you begin walking, slowly, quietly...tangentially. You walk in circle that imperceptibly decreases in its diameter over time. You stalk, painstakingly aware of your own presence and all of the unintended consequences it brings to the situation, its foreignness. Your every move has the potential to shatter a fragile ecosystem. Of course, the deer inevitably runs, it always does. You step on a twig, the wind changes direction and the creature catches your scent, reality changes before you can lock the moment in time. But there is always a brief instant before the deer escapes that both of you freeze and lock eyes, the hair stands on both of your necks and you know that you've gotten closer than you were supposed to get...a little closer than the last time.

When devising strategy one is chasing after a constantly-changing reality. We live in a state of, as Boyd put it, perpetual novelty. The world around us provides us with an infinite amount of data or inputs that we must try to filter in some sort of intelligent manner. To do so we create mental models or paradigms through which we filter the world in an effort to provide a coherent narrative. "What's going on here?" is often an incredibly difficult question to answer when posed at a global or even national level. Like the deer in the field, the perfect answer to that question, or a completely perfect match to reality is impossible to pin down -- the second you try, reality changes, making some part of your strategy irrelevant. All one can hope for is to get a little closer than the last time.

Two key themes in the work of John Boyd were novelty and "the pervasive presence of uncertainty."

"If uncertainty is indeed pervasive, it is imperative for organizations to create the ability to operate comfortably in this condition: in fact, they need to embrace it and turn the capacity to their advantage by introducing uncertainty and novelty into the environment themselves" (Osinga 103).

Introduce additional uncertainty and novelty? Actually, yes. Boyd understood that it was the very presence of these mismatches with reality that served as the creative engine for science, engineering and technology. For any organization, the constant iteration of test, failure and adaptation is the vital process to growth and success. Unfortunately, in an attempt to grow, organizations often aim their focus inward, rather than outward -- narrowing their focus rather than broadening it. In doing so they unknowingly tighten the noose around their collective necks.

Last winter in a post entitled, "Science, Defence and Strategy," Adam Elkus, a student of strategy many orders of magnitude higher than myself, pointed out the dangers of this inward-oriented thinking that Boyd constantly alluded to in his writings.

In Boyd's paper "Destruction and Creation," the widely read Colonel synthesized mathematicians Kurt Gí¶del and Werner Heisenberg's insights in pointing out that inward-oriented efforts to force observed reality to mesh with internally derived concepts only increase chaos and destruction. It is impossible to determine the consistency and character of an abstract system within itself (See John R. Boyd, "Destruction and Creation," September 3, 1976). Boyd noted that this had potentially dire consequences for rigid closed systems:

"The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all observed natural processes generate entropy. From this law it follows that entropy must increase in any closed system—or, for that matter, in any system that cannot communicate in an ordered fashion with other systems or environments external to itself. Accordingly, whenever we attempt to do work or take action inside such a system—a concept and its match-up with reality—we should anticipate an increase in entropy hence an increase in confusion and disorder. Naturally, this means we cannot determine the character or nature (consistency) of such a system within itself, since the system is moving irreversibly toward a higher, yet unknown, state of confusion and disorder. ...Furthermore, unless some kind of relief is available, we can expect confusion to increase until disorder approaches chaos— death."

An inward-oriented or single-minded approach to strategy is the equivalent of running straight at the deer. It helps people feel like a lot of work is being done, lots of motion, lots of chaos, but no real progress being made. Due to persistant novelty, the direct approach simply leaves one boxing the air.

To deal with this problem Boyd advocated looking outside the system, drawing on seemingly unrelated disciplines and fields, creating new mental models to closer match reality. Of course, they would soon need to be shattered and re-created or risk becoming increasingly irrelevant, a constant cycle of destruction and creation. Or as Elkus put it,

"We cannot escape from chaos, rather we are most successful when we embrace it by shattering the rigid mental patterns that have built up and then synthesize the new realities we observe to create a new understanding. Such a process of structuring, dissolving, restructuring, and dissolving again must be repeated endlessly."

This Boydian method of adaptation, beautifully codified in the OODA Loop, incorporated science, but more closely approximated the often chaotic, creative impulses of art. The uncertainty of the world, especially when those pesky humans are involved, makes a completely scientific or analytical approach quite incomplete.

LCDR B.J. Armstrong, USN highlighted in a recent USNI post that Boyd wasn't the only one approached strategy in this manner. Discussing the teaching philosophy of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, Armstrong wrote,

"In his book 'Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land,' published in 1911, Mahan compared naval officers to artists. He wrote that artists had to learn certain techniques, mediums and certain skills, but that wasn't what made their artwork great. In the end 'art, out of materials which it finds about, creates new forms in endless variety,' artists take those foundation basics and then mix and match them based on inspiration and experience to create a masterpiece. History helps us understand that frequently there are no right answers to military questions of strategy or leadership. There are only 'sound conclusions,' which are drawn from understanding basics and history."

Approaching strategy in an indirect fashion, as more of an art than science may make some uneasy, specifically those who find safe haven in the concreteness of checklists and formulas. Yet, the nature of strategy reflects the nature of the world. It is infinitely complex, it is always changing and it is filled with humans that often do irrational things. Literature (see Charles Hill) and psychology have as much of a place at the strategy table as military do mathematics, physics, political science and technology. So, when asking, "what must one study to be a great strategist?" the answer seems to be, "everything else."

Capt Cameron Schaefer, USAF, is a pilot with over 1,300 hours in the C-17 Globemaster including several hundred combat hours in support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. He is currently pursuing an MBA through Colorado State University and is also in the process of transitioning from the C-17 to the MQ-1 Predator. He is a 2006 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in Management.


G Martin

Sun, 05/01/2011 - 11:20pm

Great post. Especially like the last sentence, worth re-posting!

<EM> Literature (see Charles Hill) and psychology have as much of a place at the strategy table as military history... as do mathematics, physics, political science and technology. So, when asking, "what must one study to be a great strategist?" the answer seems to be, "everything else." </EM>

Unfortunately I hear the opposite from many officers: that we need to turn more inward.


This is extraordinarily insightful and beautifully written. Charles Cameron picked up and ran with it at zenpundit and really did a good job.

I do not agree with Boyd's application of entropy entirely---for I see people as the true difference from science-based view; consider people defy entropy just by being. Sentience and learning fly in the face of entropy as a cold certainty. We will all die, but during the process we grow, we create, we become...

To be sure, Boyd's examples of closed systems is spot-on, but we have choices---the choice to look outside and defy the certainty of closed-minded/closed-cultured insanity.

This is a keeper post. Very well done, indeed, sir!


Fantastic post. I have a category on my blog dedicated to exactly what you are referring too, and it is called 'Building Snowmobiles'.(Boyd reference)

I also have a section on my blog called Jundism, which is filled with little bits of strategy and ideas for individuals or groups to build their own strategies from. Strategies for personal living, business, politics, and war fighting. I kind of look at it like a hardware store filled with ideas, waiting to be assembled by a carpenter.(Musashi reference)

Finally, and on a side note. My latest 'ah ha' moment for Building Snowmobiles, was reading about the AK 47. The whole story of how that weapon came about, and all of the influences on Mikhail, are totally analysis and synthesis, trial and error, art and science--or building snowmobiles. Here is a quote from wikipedia.
Mikhail Kalashnikov began his career as a weapon designer while in a hospital after he was shot in the shoulder during the Battle of Bryansk.[10] After tinkering with a sub-machine gun design, he entered a competition for a new weapon that would chamber the 7.62x41mm cartridge developed by Elisarov and Semin in 1943 (the 7.62x41mm cartridge predated the current 7.62x39mm M1943). A particular requirement of the competition was the reliability of the firearm in the muddy, wet, and frozen conditions of the Soviet front line. Kalashnikov designed a carbine, strongly influenced by the American M1 Garand, that lost out to the Simonov design that later became the SKS semi-automatic carbine. At the same time, the Soviet Army was interested in developing a true assault rifle employing a shortened M1943 round. The first such weapon was presented by Sudayev in 1944, but trials found it to be too heavy.[11] A new design competition was held two years later where Kalashnikov and his design team submitted an entry. It was a gas-operated rifle which had a breech-block mechanism similar to his 1944 carbine, and a curved 30-round magazine.

Kalashnikov's rifles (codenamed AK-1 and −2) proved to be reliable and the weapon was accepted to second round of competition along with designs by A.A Demetev and F. Bulkin. In late 1946, as the rifles were being tested, one of Kalashnikov's assistants, Aleksandr Zaytsev, suggested a major redesign of AK-1, particularly to improve reliability. At first, Kalashnikov was reluctant, given that their rifle had already fared better than its competitors. Eventually, however, Zaytsev managed to persuade Kalashnikov. The new rifle was produced for a second round of firing tests and field trials. There, Kalashnikov assault rifle model 1947 proved to be simple and reliable under a wide range of conditions with convenient handling characteristics. In 1949 it was therefore adopted by the Soviet Army as '7.62mm Kalashnikov assault rifle (AK)'.[12]
Design concept

The AK-47 is best described as a hybrid of previous rifle technology innovations: the trigger, double locking lugs and unlocking raceway of the M1 Garand/M1 carbine,[13] the safety mechanism of the John Browning designed Remington Model 8 rifle,[14] and the gas system and layout of the Sturmgewehr 44. Kalashnikov's team had access to all of these weapons and had no need to "reinvent the wheel",[15][16] though he denied that his design was based on the German Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle.[17] Kalashnikov himself observed: "A lot of [Soviet Army soldiers] ask me how one can become a constructor, and how new weaponry is designed. These are very difficult questions. Each designer seems to have his own paths, his own successes and failures. But one thing is clear: before attempting to create something new, it is vital to have a good appreciation of everything that already exists in this field. I myself have had many experiences confirming this to be so."[18]