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