Military history

Chapter 17

The Myth of the Master Strategist

. . . in 1793 a force appeared that beggared all imagination. Suddenly war again became the business of the people—a people of thirty millions, all of whom considered themselves to be citizens . . . The resources and efforts now available for use surpassed all conventional limits; nothing now impeded the vigor with which war could be waged.

—Clausewitz, On War

The framework for thinking about war and strategy inspired by Napoleon and developed in its most suggestive form by Clausewitz was not easily displaced. So shrewd were Clausewitz’s insights and so compelling his formulations that it was hard to think of alternative ways to study war effectively. Those who drew attention to their greater knowledge about past wars and developments that he could not have imagined missed the point. The enduring power of his analytical framework lay in the dynamic interplay of politics, violence, and chance. It was because of this that writers on military strategy continued to assert their fealty to the great master. One of these, Colin Gray, wondered why modern strategic thought compared so poorly with On War. There were no war leaders comparable to Napoleon able to inspire great interpretative theory. He also pointed to a lack of military practitioners comfortable with theory or civilian theorists familiar with practice. The complexity of modern warfare challenged the lone theorist, while those concerned with national strategy had become too focused on immediate policy issues.

Gray had an exalted view of the strategist as someone who could view the system as a whole, taking account of the multiple interdependencies and the numerous factors at play in order to identify where effort could be most profitably applied. In his Modern Strategy, he identified seventeen factors to take into account: people, society, culture, politics, ethics, economics and logistics, organization, administration, information and intelligence, strategic theory and doctrine, technology, operations, command, geography, friction/chance/uncertainty, adversary, and time. Proper strategy required that these be considered holistically—that is, both individually and in context with the others.1

This was picked up by Harry Yarger, a teacher at the U.S. Army War College, who went even further: “Strategic thinking is about thoroughness and holistic thinking. It seeks to understand how the parts interact to form the whole by looking at parts and relationships among them—the effects they have on one another in the past, present, and anticipated future.” This holistic perspective would require “a comprehensive knowledge of what else is happening within the strategic environment and the potential first-, second-, and third-order effects of its own choices on the efforts of those above, below, and on the strategist’s own level.” Nor would it be good enough to work with snapshots and early gains: “The strategist must reject the expedient, near-term solution for the long-term benefit.” So much was expected of the true strategist: a student of the present who must be aware of the past, sensitive to the possibilities of the future, conscious of the danger of bias, alert to ambiguity, alive to chaos, ready to think through consequences of alternative courses of action, and then able to articulate all this with sufficient precision for those who must execute its prescriptions.2This was a counsel of perfection. There was only so much knowledge that an individual could accumulate, assimilate, and manipulate; only so many potential sequences of events that could be worked through in a system that was full of uncertainty, complexity, and chaos.

Gray also concluded that this was too much, accepting that he had also been too ambitious. Yarger, he observed, “appeared to encourage, even demand, an impossibility.”3 Even making a start on these factors required a considerable technical and conceptual grasp. Nonetheless, Gray still described a strategist as someone rather special, with an “exceedingly demanding” job description, able to see the “big picture,” and familiar with all of war’s dimensions. He quoted with approval Fred Ikle’s observation that good work on national strategy required a “rotund intellect, a well-rounded personality.”4 Similarly, Yarger had described strategy as “the domain of the strong intellect, the lifelong student, the dedicated professional, and the invulnerable ego.”5

Could there be such a master strategist with this unique grasp of affairs? If ever found, this person would be a precious resource and in great demand, torn between hard looks into the future and the need to take time to communicate conclusions in an intelligible form to those who must follow them. As such systematic and forward thinking would open up numerous risks and possibilities, any value to a practitioner would require sharpening the focus. An all-encompassing view of the environment might be welcome by a government before embarking on a major initiative where it could expect to take the first move, but could also be a luxury when coping with sudden developments that had unaccountably been missed. Then strategy might be more improvised and ad hoc. In such circumstances, the master strategist might feel a tad unprepared.

The supposed holistic view of the master strategist would also be problematic. There were good reasons to pay attention to “systems effects,” the unanticipated results of connections between apparently separate spheres of activity. The likelihood of unexpected effects was a good reason to take care when urging bold moves and then to monitor closely their consequences once taken. Exploring the range and variety of relationships within the broader environment could help identify creative possibilities by generating indirect forms of influence, targeting an opponent’s weakest links, or forging surprising alliances.6 This did not, however, require a view of the whole system. There had to be some boundaries. In principle everything was connected to everything else; in practice the repercussions of a localized action might fade away quite soon. In addition, a holistic view implied an ability to look at a complete system from without, whereas the practical strategist’s perspective was bound to be more myopic, focusing on what was close and evidently consequential rather than on distant features that might never need to be engaged. Over time the focus might change. That was not an argument to attempt to anticipate everything in advance but to recognize the unreality of insisting on setting out with confidence, certainty, and clarity a series of steps that was sure to reach long-term goals.

The idea that societies, and their associated military systems might be comprehended as complex systems encouraged the view, reflected in the perplexing searches for enemy centers of gravity, that hitting an enemy system in exactly the right place would cause it to crumble quickly, as the impact would reverberate and affect all the interconnected parts. The frustration of the search was a result of the fact that effects would not simply radiate out from some vital center. Societies could adapt to shocks. As systems, they could break down into more viable subsystems, establish barriers, reduce dependencies, and find alternative forms of sustenance. Feedback would be constant and complex.

Clausewitz did present war as a dynamic system but it was also remarkably self-contained. He was a theorist of war and not of international politics.7 He looked backward to the political source of war but that was not where he started. At the level of national policy, what eventually became called grand strategy, questions had to be asked about how goals were to be best met. The answers might exclude the armed forces or assign them only a minor role. It was only at this more political level that the success of any military operations could be judged and claims of victory assessed. The quality and timelessness of Clausewitz’s analysis of the phenomenon of war left behind the context from which it sprang, that is, the upheavals set in motion by the French Revolution. His focus on decisive victory required reassessment in the light of changes in the political context. Even when it was pointed out that Clausewitz had begun to reappraise limited war, the concept of a decisive battle retained its powerful hold over the military profession. The attraction was not hard to see: it gave the armed forces a special role and responsibility. The fate of the nation was in their hands, a point to be emphasized when seeking additional resources or political support. If affairs could be settled without decisive battles, then the general staffs could lose their importance and clout. Battle, however, became increasingly problematic as firepower became more ferocious over greater ranges and more men could be mobilized to pour into a fight. To retain the possibility of decisiveness, some critical new factor had to be found. Prior to the First World War it was detected in the motivating effects of high morale and a brave national spirit. Afterwards the focus was on the possibilities of surprise and maneuver to overcome the devastating effects of enemy firepower by disorienting them. This interest was revived in the United States during the later decades of the twentieth century though the outcomes of the regular military campaigns could be predicted as much by reference to the raw balance of military power as to any superior operational cleverness.

Even then, apparent victory could be compromised as regular wars turned into irregular struggles. This need not have been news. Clausewitz had noted the effectiveness of the first guerrillas in Spain against Napoleon. Occupying armies regularly faced harassment from a sullen and resistant population. This phenomenon was evident in the challenges to colonialism. When regular battles seemed to lead to stalemate, governments could well try to break the deadlock by seeking to coerce civilian populations, whether through naval blockades or air raids. Popular morale became as important if not more so than military morale. So from the micro-level of counterinsurgency as well as the macro-level of nuclear deterrence, the key effects were not those posed by one armed force against another but those posed against the adversary’s political and social structures.

Once the civilian sphere was acknowledged to be so important then questions of perceptions and how they might be influenced came to the fore. Deterrence required influencing the expectations of those who might be contemplating aggressive action to remind them of why this might be a bad idea; irregular warfare required separating the militants from their possible supporters by demonstrating this was a cause doomed to failure and offering few rewards if successful. There was little science in this. A sense of the danger of nuclear war did not require subtle messaging, while attempts to shape the views of people caught up in a war in which they were reluctant to take sides could easily be undermined by a single dramatic event or a lack of understanding of local concerns. Unless the message was very strong, as with nuclear war, it was easier in retrospect to explain the behavior of others than in prospect to influence that behavior through “information operations.” The counterinsurgency campaigns of the early twenty-first century reflected a keen appreciation of narratives, but they were more relevant when illuminating problems than as sources of solutions. Looking back, it was possible to discern the processes by which the predominant views within a community had begun to shift, but that was not the same as providing the basis for a forward-looking strategy.

The practical difficulties of this complex interaction between the civilian and military spheres were aggravated by the political separation of the two spheres in terms of the higher command structures. The traditional military view, affirmed by von Moltke, was that once the purposes of war had been set by the political leadership, the war’s subsequent conduct was the military’s responsibility. The civilians must then take a back seat. It was enough to have to cope with a resolute and wily enemy without having to deal with panicking civilians as well, especially once modern communications constantly put temptation in their way. When an immediate connection could be made between the head of state and the most junior front-line commander, the considered judgments of a whole chain of command might be swept away by a few inexpert and clumsy sentences. Under any circumstances, abrupt shifts in political direction combined with amateurish attempts at playing the great commander were bound to irritate the professionals.

This was the blind spot resulting from the focus on battle, expressed in the belief that the operational art was something best left to military commanders.8 This model of civil-military relationships whereby the actual deployment and employment of armed force was a largely military responsibility was wholly inadequate. The two spheres needed to be in constant dialogue. Political ends could not be discussed without regard for military feasibility. Diplomatic activity would be shaped by military options and risks. Whether or not to offer diplomatic concessions, seek resources or bases from third parties, or construct alliances, depended on military assessments. These assessments in turn led to assumptions on the shape of the rival coalitions and their ability to withstand long wars or extend their reach through bases. The idea of a military strategy separate from a political strategy was not only misleading but also dangerous.

Civilians could not ignore the supposedly operational issues associated with military strategy. They needed to consider whether the way a war was being fought was consistent with the purposes for which it was being fought, and to look beyond coming battles to the following peace. They needed to keep the public and allies, potential or actual, on their side. This required consideration of the burdens a society could accept and the harm it could legitimately impose on others, and of how to lead a polity toward these limits or away from them. When it came to operations, most military organizations had to improvise at some point, whatever the “lessons” they believed they had learned from previous wars. As they did so, the generals and admirals would often quite properly disagree among themselves on how the enemy would best be defeated. The single military view was the exception rather than the rule, and the differences regularly turned on assessments that were essentially political. The military would need regular political guidance as circumstances changed and old plans became redundant.

The attempt to develop a science of strategy was thus thwarted by the inherent unpredictability of military affairs and compounded by the even greater unpredictability of political affairs. Wars were not won through applying some formula that only seasoned military professionals could grasp, for example, by insisting on a maneuverist rather than an attritional philosophy, clever ways of catching the enemy by surprise versus the single-minded delivery of firepower. Military campaigns had to be designed according to circumstances, and successful commanders would show flexibility in their operational decisions. In explaining success and failure in war it would be wrong to discount the operational art, but as often as not the key to a successful strategy was the political skill necessary to deny the enemy a winning coalition while forging one’s own.

The origins of a distinctive concept of military strategy lay in the urge to control, and as we shall see in the next two sections, a similar urge was influential in the origins of both political (even revolutionary) and business strategy. This urge shaped strategies to control the battlefield through the complete elimination of enemy armies. It was also evident in a determination to maintain the operational sphere as the privileged domain of the military. Pure control was always an illusion, at most a temporary sensation of success, which would soon pass as the new situation generated its own challenges. Extracting a state from an attritional conflict would require awkward negotiations, while even impressive victories involved a concept of a sustainable peace and the question of how to deal with the defeated. The idea of a master strategist was therefore a myth. On the one hand, it demanded an impossible omniscience in grasping the totality of complex and dynamic situations or an ability to establish a credible and sustainable path toward distant goals. On the other hand, it failed to take account of what were often the real and immediate demands of strategy-making. This was to bring together a variety of disparate actors to agree on how to address the most pressing problems arising out of the current state of affairs and plot a means of advance to a much better state.

The attempt to control the course of battle came at a time of growing logistical complexity, mass armies, and political upheaval. As we have seen this led to two core principles that proved to be very resilient even as their limitations should have become evident and the circumstances in which they had to be implemented became even more challenging. The first, which had unassailable logic, was that complete control could only reliably be achieved through elimination of the enemy army. The second was that this required maintaining the operational sphere as the privileged domain of the military. This gave debates on military strategy a sharp but also narrow focus. The political dimension was seen as something separate, a source of goals and eventual peace terms but irrelevant to operational conduct.

A military goal of annihilation went naturally with a political goal of subjugation, though that was not always achievable. When the structure of a conflict was examined more broadly, it was likely that the ability to impose a degree of political control on situations would depend on not only the capabilities of the enemy armies but the extent of the popular determination to resist subjugation and what sort of measures could be taken against a hostile population, sources of finance and essential commodities, and the strength and cohesion of the competing alliances. Clausewitz accepted the potential importance of these factors. In his concept of “centers of gravity,” he suggested that they could be addressed through a targeted military effort. In practice, however, they were often best addressed on their own terms, raising issues of concessions and bargaining, access to markets and propaganda. The great strategists therefore tended to be those who were able to identify the most salient features of a conflict, political as well as military, and how they might be influenced. Their gifts lay in an ability to convince others of their insights and what this implied by way of action (for example, Lincoln and Churchill). They often came to be viewed as great because of elements of luck and the mistakes of their opponents. Sometimes their luck ran out and their fallibilities were exposed (for example, Pericles).

Master strategists, as described by Gray and Yarger, were therefore a myth. Operating solely in the military sphere, their view could only be partial. Operating in the political sphere they needed an impossible omniscience in grasping the totality of complex and dynamic situations as well as an ability to establish a credible and sustainable path toward distant goals that did not depend on good luck and a foolish enemy. The only people who could be master strategists were political leaders, because they were the ones who had to cope with the immediate and often competing demands of disparate actors, diplomats as well as generals, ministers along with technical experts, close allies and possible supporters. Even the best of these in the most straightforward situations could not begin to comprehend all the relevant factors and the interactions between them. They would therefore have to rely on the quality of their judgment to identify the most pressing problems arising out of the current state of affairs, plot a means of advance to a better state, and then improvise when events took an unexpected turn.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!