The War College Definition of Strategy Hurts Our Understanding of Landpower
The opinions, observations and advice in this document are the author’s alone. They are not the opinions, observations, advice or practice of the United States Army or any other part of the United States Government and do not represent or reflect US Government policy, opinion or practice.
I’m a graduate of Carlisle; proud of it. It has, however, promoted a corporate way of thinking about strategy that may be detrimental to the development of the Army. How the US Army and the US military in general think about strategy, thinking which is unavoidably influenced by how the word strategy is formally defined, bears on how military institutions will imagine, explain, and prepare ‘landpower’.
In order to, further on in this article, not come across to the reader as equivocating, let me get the disclaimers out of the way up front: I haven’t poured over the entire range of officially acceptable strategic thought coming out of the Army’s flagship school; I understand that pronouncements emanating from articles published by its Strategic Studies Institute have to meet some corporate standards, and that there is yet considerable free-range opinion within what parameters of thought are established; and etcetera. Perhaps, too, I don’t fully understand what I read, and maybe I am overly influenced by my prejudices. After all, every theoretical writing is an inkblot. That is to say, to some degree everyone sees in others’ expressions what one’s foibles and obsessions dictate, and perhaps mine dictate beyond the safe level of toxicity. All that said, I believe our War College’s corporate definition of strategy is disabling. To examine how so, please consider a definition offered by H. Richard Yarger, “The Strategic Appraisal: The Key to Effective Strategy” in J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr., ed., U.S. Army War College Guide to National Security Issues Volume 1: Theory of War and Strategy. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2012, page 53. It reads,
“Strategy is best understood as the art and science of developing and using the political, economic, socio-psychological, and military powers of the state in accordance with policy guidance to create effects that protect or advance the state’s interests in the strategic environment.”
It is efficient for argument’s sake, if a bit of an exaggeration, to use this definition as the strawman for what constitutes our War College’s definition. Dr. Yarger’s definition seems to get the institutional nod as an appropriate synthesis and shorthand for the whole of what is strategy ala Carlisle. The Yarger formulation is reflective, emblematic, and representative of the War College proposition, and probably of the group-think behind that proposition. This is not a criticism of Dr. Yarger’s thought process; he simply expresses, comprehensively and faithfully, the institutional definition. Let’s re-examine the institutional definition by disaggregation.
1. “Strategy is best understood as the art and science of developing and using the political, economic, socio-psychological, and military powers of the state in accordance with policy guidance to create effects that protect or advance the state’s interests in the strategic environment.” As a matter of linguistic logic, it seems to me that we should avoid defining ‘clearness’ as part of ‘clarity’ as that would re-beg the question of the definition of both terms. In other words, one shouldn’t assert that strategy is best understood “in the strategic environment.” If that phraseology is necessary to the definition, how are we to define the ‘strategic environment’? Is it that environment in which strategy is developed and used? Dropping that confusing language would leave the following:
2. “Strategy is best understood as the art and science of developing and using the political, economic, socio-psychological, and military powers of the state in accordance with policy guidance to create effects that protect or advance the state’s interests.” This verbiage may have been occasioned in response to arguments for and against ‘effects-based’ strategy, but it now seems unnecessary, given a general agreement that a strategy with no intended effect would hardly be worth calling a strategy. We can assume strategy is intended to be effectual and not ineffectual. The words ‘development and use’ presuppose effect. Dropping the unnecessary language leaves:
3. “Strategy is best understood as the art and science of developing and using the political, economic, socio-psychological, and military powers of the state in accordance with policy guidance to protect or advance the state’s interests.” The process of creating an institutional definition understandably invites a number of commentators and opinions that must be respected during editing. In addition, the War College wants to empower its graduates while assuring senior leaders that it accepts subordination to higher authority, particularly senior civilian authority. The underlined phraseology is understandable in that light. Still, the makers of policy ought to be makers of strategy as well. If the graduates of a war college work on strategic planning staffs or otherwise offer strategic advice, are will give that advice to policy makers who will in turn suppose correctly that they are participating in the development of strategy. Our War College (witness the article just before Yarger’s in the Guide to National Security Issues) values the reconciliation of ends, ways, and means for the proper construction of strategy. Can strategy then be defined as something less than policy? Would not that subordinate position connote that strategy is but implementation, allowing the strategist only to juggle resources and methods in order to strive toward the policy goal? If strategy means a thoughtful approach to decision-making not absent the formulation or questioning of goals, and policy includes a knowledgeable regard for method or capacity, then strategy and policy are to be unified if not synonymous, rather than one placed over the other. Do we refuse to allow that Minister of Defense to do smart strategy and limit him only to dumb policy? I think in the long run, Webster’s will not tie strategy to policy in such a way as to insinuate that result, nor will the many armies of the world. Better for the purposes of professional subordination to just say something like, “A Commander-in-Chief is the most senior strategist,” or, “A partial strategy is often created as but one layer within a multi-layered hierarchy of decision-makers.” If we could just quietly nudge the illogical policy-trumps-strategy blandishment out of the definition, we would be left with:
4. “Strategy is best understood as the art and science of developing and using the political, economic, socio-psychological, and military powers of the state to protect or advance the state’s interests.” The list makes one seek for elements that have been left out. Did Dr. Yarger purposefully exclude ‘informational’ or ‘diplomatic’? Is “political, economic, socio-psychological, and military” an almost-PMESII, an embellished DIME, or is it intended to evoke the elements used by the CIA World Factbook? More likely he simply intended to respect the committee approach to approval, or wanted to suggest all-inclusiveness. For precision and efficiency we could drop the list, however, leaving:
5. “Strategy is best understood as the art and science of developing and using the powers of the state to protect or advance the state’s interests.” At the War College there seems to always have existed the discussions prompt of whether great leadership is art or science. It is acceptable as a stylistic flare and referent for debate. It can be dropped as having no particular substantive content, however, so that we have:
6. “Strategy is best understood as the development and use of the power of the state to protect or advance the state’s interests.” Supposing that the school does not wish to offer a second-best understanding, we can drop this mild immodesty, leaving:
7. “Strategy is the development and use of the power of the state to protect or advance the state’s interests.” This is for some readers the most disagreeable part of the definition, and is the most important destination of this linguistic disaggregation exercise. Our Constitution was written by men on balance not enamored of Hobbes, who Hegel could not yet have abused, and who were not even exposed to the unfortunate European stricture of left versus right. Ours were statesmen but not statists. They did not, in balance, see the state as some organic being the survival of which was paramount. They didn’t see that the federal government needed to be robust or especially efficient. They selected a title for the chief executive that they felt would deliver the minimum necessary sense of authority. They did not see elections as granting a right to rule, but rather only a privilege of service. To them, democracy was hardly a goal, but little more than a potential tyranny, a little bit of which might suffice to allow peaceful changes in leadership. They did not want a standing Army. I don’t think it is a good idea for our War College to remind people why.
Things have changed since the time that the US Constitution was written. Still, definitions like the War College’s “best understanding” lead to something. Theory has its downstream effect. Have we, as definers of strategy fallen into accepting that society and state or nation and state are one thing? Do the War College strategy definers see all of us as, like it or not, members of the state, or that by definition we all must pull on the same rope? Many of the readers of this journal probably do not think so. Much of the anti-government opposition movement in Venezuela for instance, if they were to consider the US Army War College definition, might rightly wonder if the cause of individual liberty was being discarded as a component of American strategic thought. To salvage the possibility that strategy can also be applied to oppose or even defeat a state, we might well reduce the Yarger definition one additional step. We would be left with:
8. “Strategy is the development and use of power.” The official American military doctrinal definition of the word strategy is as follows:
A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (Joint Publications 1-02 Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms and 3-0 Joint Operations)
The Joint definition doesn’t hold up much better to disassembly than does Dr. Yarger’s. The authors and wielders of strategy should indeed be prudent. Strategies might be more successful if they are synchronized and integral. We hope they are intended to achieve objectives. What remains of the Joint definition, however, after stripping away that fluff, is the use of power. If the College’s definition of ‘strategy’ is going to be tied to the use of power so as to be copacetic with the overall military definition of strategy, it would be more practical and more inclusive if the College’s definition left room for as many kinds of power as might be necessary and appropriate to the cause of freedom.
We are left with one last question, a question that flows automatically from the unavoidable kinship of one word to another: What part of strategy might be particular to the US Army (its purview, specialty, emphasis, mandate, portion)? We in the US Army are debating the meaning of “landpower” as though somehow the word land was hiding from our conscious by being pushed up too close against power. We know strategy as the development and use of power. We know what land is. Coercive power can be delivered in many forms these days, but the most convincing kinds of power, whether coercive or not, are delivered on the ground face-to-face. Fehrenbach’s caution from This Kind of War bears constant repeating. “...you may fly over land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life, but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground...”
As a problem of professional language, almost any modifier is going to close space in a definition. The War College need not try to be the LandWar College. It is The War College. Wars are ultimately resolved on land, and I think this is all the more true of the irregular wars with which our army is mostly presented today. They need not, however, all be ultimately resolved in favor of some state, whether that state is extant or inchoate. Defending and protecting life, or keeping it for civilization, do not necessarily suppose defending, protecting, or keeping a state. When the War College’s definition of strategy allows room for such a quintessentially American understanding, the War College will itself be a more popular concept among Americans. In turn, a given American military force’s role in the expression of American power will be that much more recognizable and defensible. A definition of good strategy necessarily requires more adjectival verbiage than just plain strategy, and we may suppose that the goodness of our strategies, and therefore the set of modifiers for our “best understandings,” will depend at least a little bit on the goodness of our goals. Presumption of support to a state, however, even support to our own state, should be left out of our umbrella definition of strategy so as always to invite moral intellectual challenge as to a given strategy’s goodness. ‘Landpower’ should not be, by definition, delimited in its development and use to the service of a state.