Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Towards a General Theory of Strategy: A Review of Admiral JC Wylie's "Military Strategy"

In 1967 US Navy Rear Admiral Joseph C. Wylie published a book entitled, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control. Why write a book on strategy? Because according to Wylie, "strategy, which so clearly affects the course of society, is such a disorganized, undisciplined intellectual activity. And I believe this state of affairs might be improved" (Military Strategy, p 1). While strategy is and was important, Wylie acknowledged that a general theory of strategy could never guarantee strategic success, but would rather be a "stable and orderly point of departure from which we might proceed to the specific facts at hand in devising, in carry out, and later criticizing a strategy for a particular purpose" (p 2). Or more simply a general theory of strategy would aide the strategist in framing his/her thinking, but not act as a guide as to what to do in any specific instance. The reason for this being the "inherently disorderly", "novel" and "inherently unpredictable" situations faced within "vast social and technological revolutions" would make an actual guide to strategy impossible. The most that could be achieved would be a limited, but at the same time very useful general theory. Wylie comes to theory by way of an interesting history: A war hero, and a practitioner of surface naval warfare - his actions during the Guadalcanal campaign were significant for future Navy success - he saw theory in a very practical way.

At the same time, Wylie considered his "speculations on strategic theory" valid, but the real reason for the book, the "next step", was to "induce someone else either to refine and amend what I offer, or to purpose something different and better" (p 2). In regards to this challenge, Wylie wrote in his postscript 22 years later that, "As far as I know, no one has ever paid any attention to it. I don't know whether this is because it is so clear and obviously valid that no one needs to, or because it is of no use at all. I suspect it could be the latter, but I really do not know." (p 96).

In the mainstream literature of strategic theory/thought, Wylie either gets a quick mention or is ignored. In Colin Gray's Modern Strategy, which is probably the best and most widely accepted general reference of strategic thought, Gray refers to Wylie's "modest little book" as "by far the best of the 'successor' works considered here . . . the best book of general theory on war and strategy to appear for more than a century" (Gray, pp 86-87). Outside of a quick mention of "control" Gray makes no other comments in regards to Wylie here. The other current "classic" of strategy (possible 'successors' to Clausewitz in Gray's formulation) is Edward Luttwak's Strategy which makes no mention of Wylie. Nor does for instance, Peter Paret as editor's Makers of Modern Strategy or (perhaps unsurprisingly) the highly influential polemic of Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War.

How can this be? If Wylie's is the best book of this kind "to appear for than a century", then why so little comment? Why has no one up to now (and Wylie was unaware of anyone coming forward as of 1989) attempted "either to refine and amend what I offer, or to purpose something different and better"? In reading the book it is clear that Wylie is attempting to create a dialogue - even a dialectic - and get people thinking about strategy, but this unfortunately (for every student of strategic theory since 1967) has never been attempted, let alone set in motion, in any noticeable way.

So, it is about time that someone - even a lowly Clausewitzian such as myself - take Admiral Wylie up on his challenge and offer to "refine and amend" what he has thoughtfully introduced as a possible general theory of strategy. This is essentially a first draft of my attempt and while somewhat limited brings out and questions some very important aspects of Wylie's approach. I think a Clausewitzian perspective particularly suited for this. At times this review may seem too critical to some or perhaps not critical enough for others, the ideas and view are my own. My response is done in the same spirit as Wylie's original and with the acknowledgment that his is probably the best book of its type written by an American author in the 20th Century.

I will introduce and discuss six specific areas of Wylie's book. The first regards the nature of strategy itself including his view of what strategy should be able to accomplish and the nature of strategic theory. Second is his actual definition of strategy and some of the assumptions behind it. Third is the methods of studying strategy including his comments on cumulative and sequential strategies. The fourth is one aspect of his commentary in regards to Mao, and the fifth pertains to his second assumption in regards to "control over the enemy" and the final point regards his overall view of a general theory of strategy which ties all the points together.

One of Wylie's most valid points is that military and naval officers who command and plan our military operations use certain patterns of thought which are essentially strategic without even them being aware of it:

An idea is a very powerful thing, and political ideas or religious ideas or economic ideas have always affected and often controlled the courses of man's destinies. That we understand and accept. So also have strategic ideas influenced or controlled man's destinies, but too few men, including the men who had them, have recognized the controlling strategic concepts and theories hidden behind the glamor or the stench or the vivid, active drama of the war itself.(page 9)

Not only that, but a soldier, a sailor and an airman look at the same operation in very different ways, the airman especially "stands apart in basic principle from them both". For this reason Wylie sees a general theory of strategy necessary in order to bring these different perspectives together in a way that makes sense of the whole: "what is necessary is that the whole of the thing, all of war, be studied" (p 12). The project he takes on is daunting in that "the intellectual framework is not clearly defined, and its vocabulary is almost non-existent" (p 11).

Still Wylie has a clear view as to how this appreciation of theory could develop:
I do not mean that admirals and generals and majors and ensigns, or Congressmen or journalists or civil officials of government, should all take a year's leave of absence and turn themselves into strategic theorists. The continuing evolution and refinement of the theories should be a task for the scholars, not for the practicing military men. I do believe, however, that the men who control of influence strategy should recognize that the theories do exist, should appreciate that the theories do in fact influence the strategic mind at work whether those minds realize it or not, and should understand the general conceptual framework within which they and their colleagues actually practice their professions. (pp 30-31)

This leads us to the second point which is best introduced by the definition of strategy that Wylie prefers:
A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.

This definition is not limited to war or even strategy, and can pertain to both individuals and collectives, which brings forth a problem as I will mention. Wylie goes on to point out the importance of what he calls dichotomous thinking, that is retaining in mind both the purpose and the system of measures in terms of strategy. Usually dichotomous thinking is defined in terms of "black and white" or "binary thinking", but Wylie I think is meaning more the ability to think continuously and simultaneously in both terms of purpose and process.

The problem with the definition being too wide, that being able to cover both individuals and collectives first comes up on that same page when he attempts to deal with "morality":
It should be recognized at the outset of this discussion that a strategy has no moral quality of its own. It is inherently neither good nor evil; it is always normative or concerned with values. The morality of a strategy can only be measured in terms of the cultural value judgments of the critics. Brilliant measures may be applied for 'evil' ends; or dull, unimaginative, or completely inadequate plans may be adopted in hopes of reaching the most praiseworthy goals. (p 15)

He goes on to mention that strategy takes place in a sort of "moral climate" which may influence both acceptance of purpose and the application of means.

The morality Wylie discusses is exclusively that of the individual faced with a possible moral dilemma, which no doubt takes place, but is that the only moral aspect? Hardly, since we are after all dealing with political communities in various states of association, disassociation or open conflict. Group "morality" is something quite a part from that of the individual since as groups, especially political communities require coercion to exist. At some level all political communities are held together by the coercion exercised by the leading elite interests of the community in question. Today the usual means of exercising this power to coerce is through the entity of the state. The policies of these political communities reflect the interests of those holding the power, not necessarily those of the community as a whole: the old saying, "Rich man's war, poor man's fight" reflects a basic truth. Since we are dealing with politics, individual morality usually comes to terms with the interests of the group in order to remain part of that group during crisis. No one wishes to be labeled a "traitor". Once the purpose has been defined in terms of the survival of the political community, and it is in the best interest of the controlling factions to present it exactly this way, the chosen means become almost always acceptable. Acting in political groupings, people can be led to do all manner of things, that as individuals they would find morally reprehensible and impossible to commit.

It is not only in dealing with moral standards, that the problem of conflating the individual with the collective comes up. What is easy for an individual is sometimes difficult or impossible for a group to achieve and vice versa. Groups have quite different dynamics and are prone to whole different levels of friction and stress that individuals can avoid. While "strategy" in the broadest sense can be done by individuals for their own goals, in my view such an inclusive definition as part of a general theory of strategy is needlessly confusing. Our limited definition must pertain only to collectives. In fact such definitions referring to individuals would necessarily be reserved to solely "tactics".

Notice here that the notion of "strategically-empowered individuals" is actually defined. Individuals such as Gavrilo Princip who assassinated the Austrian Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914, who obviously achieved strategic effect, would have been nothing but a common murderer without the political element, without the legitimacy of acting as a member of the Serbian political community. Too often today, I get the impression that what seems to count is the size of the explosion, not political purpose or even existence of a political community behind the act. Without the "strategic element" namely the political community, such acts of violence by individuals are simply crimes, no matter the scale of the damage. Equating large explosions with war unquestioningly is a fools' game, because the political elements/interests undoubtedly exist, and are possibly hidden. War always requires at least two sides.

With these points in mind I introduce my own definition of strategy as a comparison: Focused adaptation of divergent sources of power assisted by control over time in pursuit of a political purpose through methodological theoretical construct (strategic theory) with the aim of creating strategic effect/a strategic dynamic greater than the sum of the individual power sources. For the strong political community, strategy can be an option, for the weak it is a necessity.

Returning now for the third point, Wylie lists the different methods of studying strategy. The first he equates naturally enough with Clausewitz and describes it as "attitudinal descriptions of war-phases or strategy phases" which offers no hope for "either penetrating analysis or for practical application in the strategic planning process" (p 17). He also laments that this "method is, necessarily, post hoc - it comes after the event in retrospect" (p 18). Essentially Clausewitz, in this case, is reduced to using a set of military terms without any larger context. It is interesting here that Wylie in his attempt to formulate a general theory of strategy is unable to recognize that Clausewitz in his operational studies is relying on a general theory of war, a theory which could provide the basis for Wylie's own wider theory of strategy. Wylie even introduces this approach at the end of chapter Two, but never links it with Clausewitz. Add this to his discussion of the cumulative and sequential strategies of war (which he credits to Dr. Herbert Rosinski) and the failure becomes complete. Rosinski of course was familiar with Clausewitz's general theory and On War's Book VIII, Chapter 3A that introduces the sequential and cumulative views of strategy, but he was not necessarily very clear in getting his ideas across - That is I blame the teacher (Rosinski) more than the student (Wylie). Refer to Christopher Bassford's Clausewitz in English, pp 86-89 for my reasons. As far as being "post hoc" I can only agree, "guilty as charged", but there is more to this which I will pick up on again below.

There is one last point I would like to make in regards to sequential and cumulative strategies. One does not replace the other for Clausewitz, they are two views of war from two different sources:
The first of these two views of war [sequential] derives its validity from the nature of the subject; the second [cumulative], from its actual history. Countless cases have occurred where a small advantage could be gained without an onerous condition being attached to it. The more the element of violence is moderated, the commoner these cases will be; but just as absolute war has never in fact been achieved, so we will never find a war in which the second concept is so prevalent that the first can be disregarded altogether. If we postulate the first of the two concepts, it necessarily follows from the start that every war must be conceived as a single whole, and that with his first move the general must already have a clear idea of the goal on which all lines are to converge. If we postulate the second concept, we will find it legitimate to pursue minor advantages for their own sake and leave the future to itself.
Since both these concepts lead to results, theory cannot dispense with either. Theory makes this distinction in the application of the two concepts: all action must be based on the former, since it is the fundamental concept; the latter can be used only as a modification justified by circumstances. On War, BK VIII, Ch 3A

So the original concept was more of perspective and Wylie's more of distinct strategies, but in 1967 Wylie was closer to the Clausewitzian view and in 1989 farther away, thinking in his postscript that advanced technology could provide quantitative proof of cumulative strategic effect. This in turn is very close to what Thomas Schelling describes as "limited coercive punishment" in the US bombing campaign of North Vietnam in 1965. There too it was thought that steadily increasing punishment of the civilian infrastructure could cause the North Vietnamese government to yield (See Arms and Influence, pp 170-76). In conclusion, sequential strategies should remain the dominate approach, but cumulative strategies can support them and even be crucial to success, however both take place within a political, read non-quantitative, context.

The second method of studying strategy is in terms of "certain Principles of War" which are "clear and simple lasting truths". JFC Fuller was a great believer of course in this approach and in his own list of principles. This is a standard way that militaries communicate doctrine, but as Wylie points out, "no one that I know of has ever discussed the very practical matter of how the principles are used to generate a strategy" (p 19). It comes down to a "sort of amiable and well-intentioned intellectual anarchy" ( p 20).

The third method of studying strategy Wylie mentions is the "more sophisticated approach to strategic studies . . . by a deliberate broadening of . . . horizons in study of social matters that have an inevitably close relationship to military action. It includes studies in such fields as political factors impinging on military strategy, economic factors, social factors, and so on". While this approach is promising, it will not "bear directly on the subjects of strategic patterns of thought and is not, of itself, an intellectual tool for better analysis of these patterns".

Ironically the last method Wylie introduces is that of "analysis on a conceptual or theoretical foundation" which is not "yet commonly recognized" and holds "some promise" (p 21). The other method he introduces is "analysis by operational pattern".

In Chapter Five, Wylie provides an overview of the various existing theories which he lists as Maritime, Air Theory, Continental Theory, and the Mao Theory. He provides an excellent discussion of the first two, but seems to falter a bit on the second two. The Continental theory is essentially Clausewitz's art of Napoleonic warfare supplanted by some good doses of Jomini and others, whereas Mao's theory for Wylie is almost the complete opposite of that of Clausewitz. Here we see the distinction between Clausewitz's general theory of war and his art of Napoleonic warfare, and yes Mao is quite different from Napoleon, but he is very close to the reaction to Napoleon of which Clausewitz was a part and is best illustrated by On War's Bk VI, Ch 26, "The People in Arms". Seeing Mao as the "anti-Clausewitz" needlessly and falsely confuses the issue, since Mao had read On War and taught it, argued for the continued relevance of Clausewitzian thought after Stalin has dismissed his theories and always retained a Clausewitzian view of the nature of war. Overall this chapter has many interesting insights into the various theories, but with significant blind spots as well.

In Chapter Seven, Wylie lists his assumptions underlying a general theory of strategy. This is a very important step since it is necessary to not only articulate these assumptions as comprehensively as possible, but to share them with your audience. Often enough, political interests can be unmasked, or to the contrary, hidden, by (un)stated assumptions in regards to strategic choices/policy. Wylie lists four basic assumptions which provide a framework and basis for his approach.

The second is the one with which I take particular issue: the aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy. I take issue on this assumption for two reasons. The first is the use of the word "control" which I think has strategic theory applications, but not in regards to our relationship with the enemy. We control "systems" which may assist (or even inhibit) our use of power over the enemy. "Control" implies that we can gain such a level of dominance over our strategic/political adversary that we can make them our slaves or robots and operate/force them to serve our aims. "Control" is not really a social reality and does not reflect the flexibility that "power" does. Power in the Weberian sense is a much better term than control, and Wylie himself was not sure of the utility of his term ("I have used the word 'control' since I can't find a better . . ." p 97). In fact if we think of power ("the probability that one actor in a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests") that is in Weberian terms, we see that being a "probability" power could range from just above 0% to almost 100%, and that it is a social relationship: one person alone would have no power since he or she would have nobody over whom to exercise it, but at the same time that person could still "control" a whole host of "systems", enjoying the semblance of "power", and still lose a conflict. That is "control" can be seen as a replacement for "power", but in reality be counter-productive to to exercising real power. Also since we are dealing with a theory of strategy, it would have to cover all sorts of associations, disassociations and conflicts. Do we actually control our allies or neutrals, not to mention enemies, or do we exercise a range of power (be it "hard", "soft" or "smart") in relation to them?

My second reason is Wylie's rejection of "war is a continuation of policy" argument, which he does not direct at Clausewitz, but at "his inaccurate interpretors". Fair enough, but the quote does put war within the realm of politics where it clearly belongs and indicates the subordination of the military to the political which is a necessary assumption for war planning and waging. "War for a non-aggressor nation is actually a nearly complete collapse of policy"? War according to Clausewitz is initiated when the defender resists, so war is the reaction by the non-aggressor to his or her own failed policy, since the aggressor would sooner get what they wish without resistance. The sequence of events remains and that sequence is political. War also being an interaction would have to encompass both sides theoretically. Wylie by replacing the political connection with his assumption of control hopelessly blurs the political connections and implies that control of systems will guarantee victory, which is his unstated assumption. I would add that this control lends itself to quantitative measurement and those may provide certain metrics, which are in reality meaningless to the attainment of the actual political purpose ("body counts" for example).

The final point I will make in this post concerns Wylie's overall view of his general theory of strategy. In Chapter Eight he starts with this:
At this stage of the argument we find ourselves with four ideas relating to war and war strategy - that there will be war, that the aim of war is some measure of control, that the pattern of war is not predictable, and that the ultimate tool of control in war is the man on the scene with a gun (p 74)

The problem with "control" I have already gone into, but it does not stop there since "control" is also used to describe the final arbitrator of war and conflict, "the man on the scene with a gun". While this is a useful metaphor for highlighting the primacy of land-based power in achieving a decision, it contains once again this notion of "control" which presents a false absolute picture of what has been achieved. The "man with a gun" does not really "control", he occupies certain areas but not all areas, he exerts power, but he does not control the locals, who still have the option to resist as we have seen repeatedly since 2001. A political settlement of some form, Clausewitz's end of strategy in other words, which is the return to peace with the political purpose achieved, remains the strategic goal of war, not control which is unachievable.

He sees the British strategic theorist and military historian Basil Liddell Hart as the example to follow in regards to a general theory of strategy, but makes many of the same errors that Hart made. Hart talks of a theory of strategy in his famous book, Strategy, but quickly goes into war strategy. Wylie does the same. While both imply that strategy must encompass far more than war, neither spend much time going into these non-conflict areas. In fact Wylie seems unaware of many of the questionable aspects of Hart's approach. Refer to John J. Mearsheimer's Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, pp 84-98 who effectively takes Hart's theory of the indirect approach apart.

In conclusion, Admiral Wylie produced a very important work which was meant to spark a debate on the subject of a general strategic theory. He was very much a sailor and looked at war from that perspective, which was one of his insights. His experiences as the US Navy's "first Combat Information Center" in action during World War II undoubtedly influenced his views on strategy and his selection of the term "control". While some of his insights are very useful he failed to understand the nature of Clausewitzian theory and like some many of his contempories, fell for the simplistic approach of Basil Liddell Hart. His original goal of establishing a general theory of strategy remains simply a goal and little follow-up has been attempted since he published his short book in 1967. Perhaps this post may spark a renewed interest in the work of this true American patriot.


Perhaps the easiest way of understanding what Wylie hoped to achieve and how he links so well with other Clausewitzian theorists is to compare him to Moltke:


[Policy uses war for the attainment of its goals; it works decisively at the beginning and the end of war, so that indeed policy reserves for itself the right to increase its demands or to be satisfied with a lesser success.

In this uncertainty, strategy must always direct its endeavors toward the highest aim attainable with available means. Strategy thus works best for the goals of policy, but in its actions is fully independent of policy]

Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions.
Strategy is the application of sound human sense to the conduct of war; its teachings go little beyond the first requirements of common sense. Its value lies entirely in concrete application. The main point is correctly to estimate at each moment the changing situation and then to do the simplest and most natural things with firmness and caution. Thus war becomes an art - an art, of course, which is served by many sciences.
In war, as in art, we find no universal forms; in neither can a rule take the place of talent.
General theories, and the resulting rules and systems, therefore cannot possibly have practical value in strategy. Strategy is not constituted like abstract scholarly disciplines. The latter have their firm and definite truths upon which one can build and from which one can go farther . . .
General von Clausewitz, on the other hand, says: "Strategy is the employment of battle to gain the ends of war" and as a matter of fact, strategy furnishes tactics with the means of battle and assures probability of victory by directing the movements of the armies and bringing them together on the battlefield. On the other hand, strategy reaps the fruits of success of each battle and makes the new arrangements based thereon. In the face of tactical victory the demands of strategy become silent. These demands attach themselves to the new situation. Strategy must keep the means that tactics require in readiness at the proper time and place. (emphasis mine)

Daniel J. Hughes, Moltke on the Art of War, 1993, pp 44-5 & 124-5


  1. I think the languages of AI Planning and Game Theory have much to offer traditional strategic theory.

    I also think that a lot of the "inherent disorder" of strategy can be explained by the inability to distinguish what is possible from what is desired and the fact that ones "opponents" may not be playing the same game you are.

    Both situations lead to unexpected events.

  2. An interesting set of refinements Seydlitz. I concur with your analysis.

    I do wonder though about your fifth point and his use of the words 'control over the enemy'. I agree with you about controlling systems and not controlling the enemy. It was probably a poor choice of words on the Admiral's part. However the sub-title of the book is "A General Theory of Power Control". So was Wylie not talking in shorthand about controlling power instead of controlling the enemy directly? Not having read the book, I will take your side. And at anywhere from $60 tom$200 per with no copies in the Seattle Library system I won't be reading it soon. Is it available any cheaper I wonder thru the Naval Institute?

    Fascinating that Mao both studied and taught Clauswitz. Is there a particular bio on Mao that covers some detail on that?

    Lastly, my thoughts on the good Admiral himself or maybe Lieutenant Wylie 68 years ago next Saturday. As you undoubtedly know but your readers may not, he was XO of a destroyer and running one of the first shipboard CICs in the Navy during the night of Bloody Friday in Ironbottom Sound. His ship saw only about 120 seconds of combat during that battle. But during that 120 seconds the CIC which he was running managed to direct several torpedoes into an IJN battleship and score deadly accurate 5-inch gunnery fire on that same battleship and on two IJN destroyers. Earlier in that battle he had passed accurate fire control data to American cruisers resulting in 85 direct hits on another IJN battleship. Quite a record! Without disrespecting Admirals Scott and Callaghan who were both KIA in that battle, and any of the other brave ships and men, or planes after daylight on the next day; in my humble opinion it was Wylie and his ship that was the straw that finally turned the tide against Admiral Abe's Attack Force.

  3. Military Strategy suffers from its date of publication. Howard and Paret's translation was nine years in the future and the recent flourishing of Clausewitzian studies in English were in their infancy. Wylie didn't have access to that material when he wrote Military Strategy and didn't incorporate it in the interim between the original publication and the 1989 postscript (for whatever reason).

    John Boyd lists Military Strategy in the bibliography for his "Patterns of Conflict" briefing, the closest you get to a summa theologica of BoydThink. Whatever impact, if any, Wylie had on Boyd is unknown. Someone who looked through the Boyd papers doesn't recall seeing any other reference to Wylie.

    I took my own shot at a Clausewitz-Wylie synthesis recently:

    I've done quite a lot of posting on the power and control issue.

    This was my first attempt:

    It's sequel:

    And a further sampling:

  4. Ael-

    You'll notice that I quote Schelling in my post, so very much agree as to game theory as used by Schelling who is a great strategic theorist imo. AI planning? Would have to refer to social relations/interactions . . . otherwise could be a should or more confusion, and we have more than our share of that in strategic thinking at the moment.


    Thanks for the kind words. Yes, agree as to Wylie's very impressive accomplishments. It is for this reason, more his actual practical experience, than what he wrote in Strategy, that I use this more restrictive, but imo clearer definition of "control". I too thought of the use of "power" and "control" in the title, but find this more reflecting his background as well - systems ensure power as in force or compellence. This of course is true for naval and air operations, but they do not alone insure strategic success, as Wylie admits with his "man with the gun" metaphor.

    I have the reference on Mao at home and will post it later . . .


    Welcome to our humble blog. I've taken a quick look at your latest post, but find your use of "power" and "control" to be too close, almost interchangable, blending into each other. For instance you present this Clausewitz quote:
    "War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." You say that "act of force" is power and "compel the enemy" is control, but power doesn't necessarily translate into control as I have stated, and force as only power restricts what power in fact is (also coercion/ compellence, "soft" and "smart") which all are different but don't all involve force which is a type of power as well. I like the technical/systems thinking connection with my use of the concept of control, since it explains how one can be "in control" of systems, but still lose a conflict, fail at exerting power. Control can be indicating one set of measures, but at the same time be hiding another, more important set . . .

    By using the Weberian concept of power (which would never assume "control" since it is a probability) we also open the door to a whole series of related concepts in the formultion of our general theory of strategy and make it accessible to alot of the current thinking in international relations, such as the work of Joseph Nye.

  5. A similar strategy in business is called 'logical incrementalism' which is out of fashion now but which assumed there was high uncertainty and so decisions were made incrementally on a time-line toward a general goal and that decisions changed as circumstances changed in time. I found this to be closer to reality than the textbook discussions of strategy when I tried to apply them.

    Also if one stepped back and looked around at America today, one might say that the biggest deficiency might be in the use of strategy at all, especially between political and military institutions.

    Gen. Franks invading Iraq with not plan for occupations beggars the word 'strategy' in any context.

    Our current Afghan 'surge' might beggar it as well unless one thinks that the objective is US domestic politics and not 'victory' in Afghanistan.

    Indeed a definition of 'victory' in Afghanistan might be the first step toward a strategy of any kind.

  6. MB and all.
    I'm weak on the strategy issue, that is the correct terminology and all, but imho it all boils down TO THE FOG OF WAR.
    To control the battle space,and therefore move the enemy to your will REQUIRES a correct set of assumptions BEFORE you can even define your strategy.
    This imho is the weakness of US strategic thinking, at least since 1950.
    Our assumptions are treated as fact when they are often totally fantastical.
    Hope i'm OT.

  7. Excellent essay Seydlitz!

  8. mike-

    I think the connection between Mao and Clausewitz pretty much common knowledge at this point. Perhaps the best discussion of the connections is Dirk Freudenberg's "Theorie des Irregulären: Partisanen, Guerillas und Terroristen im modernen KleinKrieg", pp 308-12. Unfortunately the intro to this chapter on Mao focusing on the influence of Clausewitz is not provided in the goggle version . . . American and British Clausewitz scholars have been unfortunately slow at uncovering the Mao-Clausewitz connection.

    The best reference in English is Beatrice Heuser's "Reading Clausewitz", pp 19 & 138-42. Heuser rightly refers to Mao as one of his "Communist disciples". . .

    Followers of 4GW have a big problem with this of course since it pretty much tips over their whole little applecart, but then if it's sooo easy to do then that should indicate something fundamental about their whole confusion . . .

  9. Minstrel Boy-

    Welcome to the blog. Hope to be hearing more from you in the future. Your comments reminded me of Moltke's concept of "Strategy is a system of expedients" . . . but there are other elements of that approach which we need to be aware of as well, as I introduce in the postscript . . . comments?


    Looks to me that you've got a good handle on what strategy is, the question remains as to the place/utility of strategic theory, or in Wylie's contribution, the application of a general theory of strategy to the formulation of strategy . . .


    Glad you like it. I was kinda dreading this piece and had invested a good bit of time and effort in it. Nice to see that my thoughts have come more or less across . . .

  10. Seydlitz, you done good here.

    And I'm with the Ranger—who, despite what he writes, isn't at all weak on strategy—in wondering just how it is a government with a three trillion dollar+ operating budget can be so incredibly lousy in the essential art of strategic assumption. Assumptions drive the train; if they're skewed through political bias or just from plain stupidity, nothing will work out as intended or desired.

    Minstrel Boy's example of Franks' dereliction of duty in not preparing for occupation is understandable once we recall that, according to senior government officials, US troops would be met by cheering Iraqis. The strategic assumption—driven by ideological bias—was liberation; the reality was something entirely different.

    Minstrel Boy is also correct in that what passes for an Afghani strategy has everything to do with domestic politics and very little to do with anything else. No wonder it is failing.

    There is tons of strategic thinking in our modern political universe. Unfortunately, it mostly has to do with who gets elected and who does not, rather than with the fate of the nation.

  11. Publius-

    Glad you like it.

    Strategic assumptions are of course important to identify. I would add that actually having a strategy is not necessarily the case many times; there are enough military campaigns in history which were based on simply the use of military force. Hitler's war against the USSR and Bush's war in Iraq are cases in point.

    Agree that Franks was derelict in fulfilling the miliatary aims which he had been publically assigned . . .

    DoD Briefing of 21 March 2003 . . .

    Coalition military operations are focused on achieving several specific objectives:

    to end the regime of Saddam Hussein by striking with force on a scope and scale that makes clear to Iraqis that he and his regime are finished.

    Next, to identify, isolate and eventually eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, production capabilities, and distribution networks.

    Third, to search for, capture, drive out terrorists who have found safe harbor in Iraq.

    Fourth, to collect such intelligence as we can find related to terrorist networks in Iraq and beyond.

    Fifth, to collect such intelligence as we can find related to the global network of illicit weapons of mass destruction activity.

    Sixth, to end sanctions and to immediately deliver humanitarian relief, food and medicine to the displaced and to the many needy Iraqi citizens.

    Seventh, to secure Iraq's oil fields and resources, which belong to the Iraqi people, and which they will need to develop their country after decades of neglect by the Iraqi regime.

    And last, to help the Iraqi people create the conditions for a rapid transition to a representative self-government that is not a threat to its neighbors and is committed to ensuring the territorial integrity of that country.


    Note the last aim. Of course Franks didn't take any of these seriously, since he knew that these weren't the REAL military aims, rather only those for the rubes. That's why instead of getting fired, Idiot Bush pinned a PMOF on his chest.

    Agree too that "strategy" is defined in the US today as simply political machinations and domestic information ops to allow elite interests to do whatever they please with government assets/funds. There is no concept today of national interest.

    What allows for such an analysis as this imo is strategic theory, or the basic outline of a general theory of strategy, or in Wylie's terms, (un)conscious strategic patterns of thought . . .

  12. Zenpundit linked to this post in connection with a post he made on a Kings of War post . . .

    Nice comment from Zen in regards to this post as well.



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