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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.


Infinity Journal: Special “The Strategy Bridge” Edition

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Infinity Journal has a special issue out dedicated to this important book on strategy (registration is free):

The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice by Colin S. Gray 

There is an excellent group of reviewers in this IJ issue including – Williamson Murray, Antulio Echevarria, David Betz and Nathan Finney. Here are a couple of samples:

Nathan Finney:

….What is clear from The Strategy Bridge is that there is a general theory of strategy that can be distilled empirically from history and experience to complement Clausewitz’s general theory of war. It is also clear that it may be easier to capture in a thoughtful work than to actually implement it. Clausewitz’s theory of war requires men of “genius” with coup d’œil to achieve success. Similarly, though he does not state it explicitly, Gray’s concept of strategy requires strategists of “genius” that can intuitively see the strategic context and effectively provide a bridge in the negotiation between politics and tactics. As such, Gray’s bridge does not necessarily require commanders, but conductors that can translate the relativity in the contemporary strategic context and manage civilian-military relationships, for “the principal core competency of the strategist is the ability to direct armed forces in war, not necessarily to command and lead them.

David Betz:

….I like also that he does not cut corners, nor oversimplify that which is inherently complex. This is sometimes pitched as a criticism but I reckon that it ought not to be. In The Strategy Bridge he describes fully twenty-one dicta of strategy in four categories in three parts – theory, practice, and context and purpose – before concluding with six ‘broad, more than a little compounded’ claims tempered with five ‘cautions, or caveats’.[v] This is clearly not a book to be read and digested in a lazy Sunday afternoon. Strategy, as he illustrates in a recurring theme throughout the text, is complicated to conceive and to practice: it is, he writes, ‘possible but difficult’. If one adds ‘but worth the effort’ to complete the epigram it would seem also an apposite description of The Strategy Bridge. It is not that the author of ‘Clausewitz Rules, OK?’ is unable to make a point concisely; it is, rather, that in this case he has quite a few points to convey – and, moreover, they intertwine in complicated ways that defy easy unravelling. I found crossing The Strategy Bridge to be hard going but the effort was amply rewarded. This is not a review, however; it is instead a short essay inspired by the reading….

Read the special issue here.

I also had a review of The Strategy Bridge over at Pragati: The Indian National Interest

….The Strategy Bridge is subtitled “Theory for Practice” because it is intended as a serious work of theory, a framework for understanding enduring principles of strategy so that a practitioner can thoughtfully apply them in making strategies for the specific context in which they find themselves to provide correct guidance for the operational planners and tacticians who will execute it. Consequently, Gray has not written an introductory text for a novice student but an insightful book for the strategic practitioner of journeyman experience – field grade officers, senior intelligence and foreign policy analysts, academic strategists, think tank researchers and national security advisers to senior government officials – who have a store of knowledge of their own. Hence the repeated invocation of “the bridge” metaphor by Gray; his primary audience are the people “doing strategy” and their success or failure “manning the bridge” will help determine the degree to which government purpose remains connected to action or whether the whole business will go off the rails into a quagmire, as it too often does.


Competitive Strategies Interview by Manea

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Just a quick link, but check out the SWJ interview that Octavian Manea has done with former DoD policy planning deputy Dr. Thomas G. Mahnken:

Lessons From Previous Competitive Strategies

SWJ: A key concept that Andrew Marshall and ONA developed and shaped is that of competitive strategies. To what extent did the concept of competitive strategies provide an intellectual construct for winning the Cold War and managing the great power competition during peacetime?

Thomas Mahnken: At one level, the term “competitive strategies” is a redundancy – one certainly wouldn’t want to implement uncompetitive strategies. Indeed, the very notion of competition lies at the heart of strategy.  That having been said, the logical notion that one should pay attention to one’s enduring comparative advantages and exploit a competitor’s enduring comparative weaknesses can at times be an alien way of thinking in a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon and the national security community.

One of the things that the Office of Net Assessment did from its founding in the mid 1970s was to tap into thinking in the business and management literature about how to formulate and implement a long-term strategy for competition. A competitive strategy is focused on peacetime interaction and is about the peacetime use of military power to shape a competitor’s choices in ways that favor our objectives. That is, it is concerned with the development, acquisition, deployment, and exercising of forces, as opposed to their use in combat. A competitive strategy assumes that the choices that the competitors have to make are constrained. A competitive strategy seeks to identify and exploit these constraints.

This overall concept did play a role in U.S. strategy in the 1970s and 1980s by pushing the senior Defense Department leadership to think more in these terms. That meant thinking more about areas of comparative advantage and disadvantage, about areas where we needed to be ahead and areas where we could afford not to be ahead. Over time, that approach played an important role in the U.S. strategic effectiveness, particularly in the late Cold War. First unconsciously and later consciously, the Defense Department carried out a series of competitive strategies against the Soviet Union and in the end that approach played a role in convincing the Soviet leadership that they couldn’t compete with the U.S. in a whole series of areas. 


Manea interviews Kilcullen at SWJ

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Octavian Manea, the interviewer par excellence of Small Wars Journal, steps up with an interview with COIN guru and former USG senior adviser Dr. David Kilcullen:

Future of Warfare in a Post-COIN Conflict Climate


SWJ: Should we expect that when we see all these clustered elements conflict is more likely, the societal environment more conflict prone?

David Kilcullen: There are two different ways to look at this set of relations. If we look at this from the standpoint of the military or law-enforcement, then it is pretty clear that we really need to get comfortable with operating in a very littoral, very urban and very highly networked environment because that is where the bulk of the people on the planet are going to live in the next generation. If you are not comfortable operating in such an environment you are not going to be effective. But this doesn’t mean that the solution to this problem is a military one. Seen from the perspective of the city in itself, it is pretty clear that the solution is not to bring the hawk cops in, and apply hard power tools to stabilize the environment. This is often a recipe for disaster. The paradox is that, on the one hand, there are no military solutions, but at the same time there are no solutions at all without security. Someone will provide that security and it is better for it to be the locals, but if the locals cannot do it, then history suggests that we will be drawn into this kind of conflict with about the same frequency as in the past.    

SWJ: You emphasized in your book, and also at the New America Foundation launching event that in the future we will face operational continuity and environmental discontinuity. What if the environmental discontinuity can in itself be a variable able to change the operational continuity?

David Kilcullen: That’s possible, to the extent that we have data — information based on historical patterns. On one hand, it seems that there is a lot of unwillingness on behalf of the American politicians to contemplate future engagements like Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress has no appetite as we’ve seen in the case of Syria for further military activity overseas. The military leadership is very reluctant to recommend that kind of operation. But going back to the 19th century we see a cyclical pattern in American military history where we repeatedly have leaders coming out with this kind of statement and yet we end up doing these kinds of operations anyway, on about the same frequency. There are deep structures about the way the US is connected to the international community that lead to this kind of behavior. It is possible that we won’t do this in the future, but it is not the way to bet. If you are going to bet on what is likely to happen, the pattern suggests that we are going to see a specific “conflict climate” (shaped by population growth, urbanization, littoralization and connectedness) within which wars will arise.

Read the rest here.


Who is J. C. Wylie?

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013

Captain J. C. Wylie

[recompiled by Lynn C. Rees]

Following up on Scott’s Mark’s post from yesterday: more information about J.C. Wylie, who you’ve probably never heard of but should have.

The following follows J.C. Wylie Wikipedia article but leaves out debris it’s accreted since I wrote it:

Name: Joseph Caldwell Wylie, Jr.
Birth date: March 20, 1911
Death date:  January 29, 1993
Birth Place: Newark, Essex, New Jersey, United States
Death Place: Portsmouth, Newport, Rhode Island, United States
Place of Burial: Trinity Cemetery, Portsmouth, Newport, Rhode Island, United States

Wylie's headstone

Nickname: “J. C.”, “Bill”
Allegiance: United States of America
Branch: United States Navy
Service Years: 1928–1972 (44 Years)
Rank: Rear Admiral
Commands: USS Trever (DD-339), USS Ault (DD-698), USS Arneb (AKA-56), USS Macon (CA-132), Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Nine, Commandant, First Naval District
Battles: Pacific Theater, World War II
Awards: Silver Star, Joint Service Commendation Medal, Two Legions of Merit
Spouse: Harriette Bahney (married November 27, 1937)

Rear Admiral Joseph Caldwell Wylie, Jr., United States Navy, (March 3, 1911 – January 1, 1993) (called “J. C.” Wylie or “Bill” Wylie), was an American strategic theorist, author, and US naval officer. Wylie is best known for writing Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control.


J.C. Wylie was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 3, 1911. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1932. Wylie first saw service on USS Augusta (CA-31) under Captains James O. Richardson, Royal E. Ingersoll, and Chester W. Nimitz. During the later 1930s, he served on USS Reid (DD-369), USS Altair (AD-11), and USS Bristol (DD-453).

In May 1942, Wylie was promoted to executive officer of USS Fletcher (DD-445). Fletcher participated in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Tassafaronga. For his improvised integration of radar, gunnery , and torpedo control during these two actions, Wylie received a Silver Star. He received his first command, USS Trever (DMS-16), in January 1943. After six months, he was assigned to a newly formed Combat Information Center school at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where he led a team in writing the first CIC Handbook for Destroyers, Pacific Fleet. Wylie later placed USS Ault (DD-698) into commission as commanding officer and completed his World War II service working on a group tasked with countering kamikaze attacks during the planned invasion of Japan.

After World War II, Wylie served as a staff officer with the Office of Naval Research and the Naval War College. During the 1950s, he helped create the practice of having two alternating crews man a ballistic missile submarine. In the mid-1950s, Wylie filled staff jobs as well as commanding USS Arneb (AKA-56) and USS Macon (CA-132) and serving as Commander, Cruiser Division Three (later Cruiser-Destroyer Flotilla Nine), Deputy Inspector General of the US Navy, and Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. While serving in the latter position, Wylie participated in the 1965 United States occupation of the Dominican Republic, for which he was awarded his first Legion of Merit. Wylie finished his career by serving as Deputy Commander in Chief, United States Naval Forces Europe and Commandant, 1st Naval District. Wylie retired from the U.S. Navy on July 1, 1972 after 44 years of service. Upon his retirement, he received a second Legion of Merit.

After his retirement, Wylie served as the first chairman of the USS Constitution Museum Foundation. J.C. Wylie died on January 29, 1993 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

Military Strategy

While commanding USS Arneb in 1953, J.C. Wylie began writing Military Strategy, A Theory of Power Control. However, Military Strategy was not published until 1967. A revised edition of Military Strategy, together with other articles written by Wylie over the years and a new afterword, was published by the United States Naval Institute Press in 1989. It was edited with an introduction by John B. Hattendorf.

Military Strategy is a search for a general theory of not just military strategy but all strategy. In Military Strategy, Wylie defined strategy as:

A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.

Wylie defined two patterns of strategy: sequential and cumulative. A sequential strategy involved a planned sequence of events where each event is dependent upon the success of the preceding event. Wylie offered MacArthur’s campaign in the South West Pacific, Nimitz’s campaign in the Central Pacific, and Eisenhower’s campaign in Europe as examples of sequential strategies. A cumulative strategy involved a pattern of small, disconnected actions that, taken together, combine to have a significant impact. Wylie uses insurgencies and the U.S. Navy’s submarine campaign against Japan in World War II as examples of cumulative strategies.

After examining the four leading strategic theories of his time (Maritime, Air, Continental, Mao) and their limitations, Wylie presented his own general theory of strategy. To Wylie, control was the essence of strategy:

So it is proposed here that a general theory of strategy should be some development of the following fundamental theme: The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

Wylie concluded Military Strategy‘ by demonstrating how control underlies all strategy from courtship to diplomacy to terrorism to war. The type of control used could be anything from influencing the enemy to physically destroying the enemy.

Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie

Wylie Writings


Military Strategy: A general theory of power control

Excerpt I:

The primary aim of the strategist in the conduct of war is some selected degree of control of the enemy for the strategist’s own purpose; this is achieved by control of the pattern of war; and this control of the pattern of war is had by manipulation of the center of gravity of war to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent.

The successful strategist is the one who controls the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the centers of gravity of the war, and who exploits the resulting control of the pattern of war toward his own ends.

This was purposely a very general statement. If we accept the premise that a strategy is a plan for doing something in order to achieve some known end, then it seems an adequately precise postulation. The aim of any strategy—land, sea, air, diplomatic, economic, social, political, a game of poker, or the way of a man with a maid—is to exercise some kind or degree of control over the target of the strategy, be it friend, neutral, or opponent. I have used the word “control” because I can’t find a better. The vocabulary is not wholly adequate to the need. In many cases, “influence” might be more nearly the word; less often it could even be “dominance”. Take your choice, or find other words that better fit your situation. I have settled on “control” simply as an umbrella to cover the full span of possibilities.

In the case of maritime strategy (which was understandably my first interest), the aim is the extension of control from the sea onto the land. Note here that the more frequently discussed control-of-the-sea is a necessary prelude, a means, to this end. And remember also that the control extended from the sea on to the land, which is where people live, can be political, or economic, or psychological, or military, or any combination of various pressures toward control. It can be direct or subtle,  overt or covert, or immediate or slow or delayed in its working. And, again, some forms of it might be more accurately described as direct or indirect influence.

Probably the most slippery and lease precise bit of this postulated theory has to do with “manipulation of the center of gravity”, or control of “the nature and the placement and the timing of the center of gravity”. Another way to say this is that the strategist needs some leverage to induce or force the other fellow to accede, wholly or in part, to what the strategist wants.

The President, seeking a particular piece of legislation from the Congress, may adopt a strategy in which his leverages include both a carrot (to induce) and a stick (to force) in hopes of reaching some mutually acceptable agreements.

The diplomat engaged is arms control or trade negotiations follows essentially the same path in his strategy.

The man a-wooing the maid uses as his leverage the carrot.

The armed force at war depends on the stick.

And that brings up another matter. The principle stick available to armed forces is some kind of destruction. The correlation between destruction and control, which varies widely from one situation to another, has been emotionally neglected in public discussions of military strategy.

It is not too difficult for an army on a battlefield to resolve one aspect of this: just use a bazooka and destroy that tank. With one less enemy tank, the army is a little closer to control of the battlefield.

In my own profession, we can often use the same reasoning: sink a hostile ship or submarine and we are that much closer to control of that part of the sea.

The Air Force problem (and the Navy for some of this, too) quickly gets more difficult the farther it reaches beyond the battlefield. The tank shot up by a plane in “close interdiction” just substitutes the aircraft weapon for the bazooka. But what about the so-called “deep interdiction” and “strategic bombing”? How, and how much, do these destructions contribute to the control that is the aim of war? Monday-morning quarterbacks today still question the Dresden and Hamburg firestorms and (to my private fury since most of them were not then living, much less at risk) noisily question not only the need but morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

Here let me clearly state that, by bringing up these matters, I am not automatically opposing “deep interdiction” or “strategic bombing” or opposing nuclear missiles in submarines or silos…What I am trying to do is indicate this basic aspect of the use of armed force, which necessarily involves many different kinds and degrees of destruction, needs a lot more thought and analysis than I think it has had either in public or in organizational privacy.

What are the relationships, the correlations, between destruction and control? What will this show of force (which is potential destruction) or that segment of actual destruction contribute, directly or indirectly, now or later, to the control we seek as our aim in peace or war? Only by facing up to that kind of question, clinically rather than emotionally, can we move from profligacy toward efficiency in the planning and conduct of war…

Excerpt II (from the postscript added in 1989, twenty years after the book was first published):

There is another aspect of strategy that has come more to the forefront that it was twenty years ago when this book was published. This is the problem of terrorism in all its forms—murder, kidnapping, violent and selective destruction, well-publicized threats, and all of it planned for clever and effective exploitation of modern mass communications in free societies. This latter, mass communications in free societies, is an indispensable element of terrorism. Closed societies, with control of mass communications, are not good targets…

Among the many books on the subject (and there literature on the matter has proliferated along with the fact), the best and most succinct exposition of terrorism that I have encountered is by Robert F. Delaney, in an independent study course designed to inform both police and industrial security  personnel. The following two paragraphs are condensed from it:

Who are these politically activated persons whose alienation is so complete that they desire to destroy their own (as well as other) societies?

They are largely from the middle and upper middle classes, often young (in their twenties), usually well educated, totally dedicated, opinionated, dangerous, well trained, and invariably well armed.

To add to Delaney’s profile, it is worth noting that most terrorists have a highly developed instinct for the jugular, a quality that separates the excellent from the run-of-the-mill strategists.

The best definition of the the aim of terrorism that have found also comes from that same study guide: “…the capture and control of the processes of social change.” Delaney goes on to note: “that not one military word is used in this definition [is]…significant because it establishes the distinction between a conventional military approach and the revolutionary approach of an insurgent enemy.”…

It is of interest to note, though, that the strategies of the terrorists do follow quite closely the general theory of strategy postulated in this book.

In their war against society, their aim is “some selected degree of control [of the processes of social change] for…[their]own purpose.” They seek to achieve this “by control of the pattern” of their war against society. And they do this by creating and manipulating a “center of gravity” (a person or an installation that will ensure public attention) which they have selected “to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent“, the opponent being the organized society over which they want to exercise control.

Their pattern of operation is to control “the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the center of gravity” that they have chosen “toward [their] own ends“—the control of the processes of social change. They select their targets for the greatest impact on that society.

Viewed in this context, the murder of Lord Mountbatten and the often indiscriminate bombings in Belfast make a weird and repugnant sort of sense. So do the kidnappings in Beirut, the murder of Aldo Moro, the aborted piracy of the Achille Lauro, and the threats or the facts of bombing this or that public (and usually governmental) building.

Though I am sure none of them ever saw this small book, they do follow quite closely the theoretical model of strategy. And it is in part for this reason, to illustrate the validity of theory, that I have digressed to include terrorism in the postscript.

Excerpt III:

It would appear that a fairly careful scrutiny of the opponent’s thought patterns and their underlying assumptions should be an early component of our own planning process. If we could deliberately make his theory invalid we have gone a long way toward making his actions ineffective. An examination of this type might uncover something crucial in reaching toward establishment of control…

The aim of the soldier is to establish control over the enemy by overcoming his army and thus destroying his will to fight. The aim of the sailor is to establish and exploit control of the sea and extend, by a variety of pressures, control from the sea onto the land, where the opponent is.

Destruction of each of these two cases is only one component of control, and not the whole of it. The soldier exercises his ultimate control by his unchallenged presence on the scene. The sailor contributes to control in part by destruction, but as much by other components. Like the soldier, in some cases, by his presence. Or, as often as not , by making possible various political or economic pressures toward control. The Sixth Fleet, for instance, is a political force of the first magnitude int the Mediterranean, and its day-to-day sailings are determined as much by diplomatic as by military factors.

How does one figure the cost effectiveness of the presence of a battalion in Berlin, or of a destroyer in the Persian Gulf?  Control of this type, in its more sophisticated sense, is probably better described as “influence”, but it is nonetheless a degree of control, and as such it is a legitimate and useful “purpose” in assessing the worth of these instruments of strategic policy.

The point to be made here is that the more sophisticated the strategic concept—and this need have no relation to the sophistication of the technology involved—the more elusive are the statistical measures of worth. Destruction is measurable and can be mathematically forecast to a great degree; control is a matter of living people, and thus must, probably for a long time to come. remain a matter of human judgement. It is very difficult to put a statistical column in one column and a human judgement in the other and compare them. We do not yet have the techniques for that except in another human judgement. It is the nature of the strategic theories that limits the application of the mathematical analysis in the management of the tools of war.

Excerpt IV:

We have established the strategic aim as some measure or some kind of control; and we have stated that a general theory of strategy “should be able to provide a common and basic frame of reference for the special talents of the soldier, the sailor, the airman, the politician, the economist, and the philosopher in their common efforts toward a common aim”.

The inclusion of these latter three along with the men at arms is, of course, deliberate. It is deliberate because control—direct, indirect, subtle, passive, partial, or complete—is sought in so many ways other than military. Diplomatically it is exerted largely by mutual agreement. Economically it is exerted largely by self-interest and, in its most basic form, a desire to keep up the habit of eating. Philosophically the pressures and constraints of control are perhaps the most subtle and at times, the most pervasive and persuasive of all.

Consider the amount of control exercised over the past two millennia by the philosophy of Christianity. Consider the control exercised today by the philosophy of communism. And by the philosophy of individual freedom.

This is what we seem somehow to have missed in our strategy for freedom in the rural-peasant societies of the world—in those areas where the Mao theory of “wars of national liberation” is, far and away, the most dangerous foe we have to face.

In some ways we have, intuitively, recognized the problem. The “strategic hamlet” program in South Vietnam is aimed at forestalling or making more difficult the communist efforts to provide the “water” for the guerrilla “fish”. The Peace Corps seems to be headed generally in along a roughly parallel path. But neither of these efforts seems to get at the root of the problem, which is the need for articulation of a philosophy to be “for”.

This is not a suggestion that someone go out and think up a brand new religion or a brand new political scheme. But it is a suggestion that, at the least, we might do a better job of adapting what we have (which is very fine indeed) to the actual situations that confront us.

We have known for a long time that, in our society, the Anglo-American, two-party electoral system of applied democracy is both an efficient and an acceptable system for the allocation, use, and transfer of power, which is the basic problem of politics. And we have known, too, that it provides us a quite satisfactory context for the observance of our predominantly Christian spiritual ethic.

But we have had a great deal of difficulty in stretching these two schemes of ours to fit other societies. Our basic, and usually tacit, assumptions have not often been in very close coincidence with those of other societies that we have wanted to win over to our side.

If we could adjust the assumptions to fit the reality of the scene of action, we might get forrader faster.

It is a little difficult to give an illustration of what is meant in this abstract discussion of philosophic strategy because illustrations are so scarce—or because I am a sailor, not a philosopher. But two short ones may serve.

One is the way that Mao has rearranged the theories of Marx to fit the situation in China. Marx focused on the urban worker who suffered under the dislocations of the early days of the Industrial Revolution. This man did not exist in China, or at least did not exist in sufficient number to be a governing element of effective revolution. So Mao revised Marxian theory to focus on the rural peasant, and the revised theory has worked with chilling effectiveness in rural societies.

The other example is fictional, but its nevertheless directly relevant to today’s problems of what strategies we should use to influence the uncommitted areas of the world toward us rather than toward the communists. Father Finian, in the The Ugly American, went into a remote corner of Southeast Asia and helped the villagers devise a rationale, and, within that rationale, a plan of action designed in order to achieve the end of defeating the communists.

This fictional Roman Catholic priest, and quite fittingly a Jesuit intellectual disciplinarian, devised a strategy firmly rooted in the reality of the scene of action; he put into effect his plan of action; and he achieved his end.

It is something like this that we need to serve as a sort of foundation on which to build the whole strategic rationale. We would not all agree that it need be based on Jesuit Catholicism, or perhaps even on any religious philosophy. But it must have an acceptable and locally viable philosophic base; and it must be a strategy suited to, rather than imposed upon, the actual scene. The fighters must believe in what they fight for. The basic assumptions must fit the reality.

“NerveAgent’s” notes

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Notes by people not named NerveAgent:

RAdm. Joseph C. Wylie, Jr.

RAdm. Joseph C. Wylie, Jr.

CIC Handbook for Destroyers, Pacific Fleet

1943 U.S. Navy manual that Wylie heavily contributed to based on his experience inventing the first Combat Information Center as Executive Officer of USS Fletcher during the naval battles off Guadalcanal.

Executive Officer’s letter regarding the loss of USS Juneau on November 13, 1942

USS Juneau was sunk by the Japanese submarine I-26 in the aftermath of  the naval battle of Guadalcanal. Wylie was Executive Officer of USS Fletcher at the time. These were his memories (written down in 1986) of what happened with Juneau.

Mahan Then and Now

Professor Michael Martin of the U.S. Naval War College found this transcript of some remarks Wylie gave at the Mahan Centennial Conference held in the U.S. Naval War College’s library from April 29-May 1, 1990. The centennial celebrated was the 100th anniversary of the publication of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Wylie’s address was on “Mahan: Then and Now” with “Now” being a year before Operation Desert Storm and the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The talk is a brisk walk through some of Wylie’s major ideas, especially those on control and projecting control from the sea onto the land.

The original transcript was scanned into PDF as an image. This appears first. The text version was scanned from the image with tesseract and adds Wylie’s addendums. This appears second.

Captain J. C. Wylie, CO, USS Arneb (front row in center)

Captain J. C. Wylie, CO, USS Arneb (front row in center)

Wylie Speaks


United States Naval Institute


Catalog page for oral interview with J. C. Wylie.

Retired Admiral J. C. Wylie and a WWII Story


Said NerveAgent:

RADM J.C. Wylie is of some significance to this blog. Though I am familiar with his writings and career history, his death 18 years ago precludes anyone from learning more about the man himself. Thus my keen interest when I recently stumbled across a video of Wylie speaking before a USS Fletcher reunion in late 1992, just a few months before his death, in which he shares some humorous anecdotes about his service aboard the destroyer during World War II. The quality of the video could be better, but it shows that Wylie was lucid, eloquent and sharp all the way to the end of his life, and adds some personality to the theory of Power Control.

Captain J. C. Wylie

Captain J. C. Wylie

Wylie Related

History of USS Fletcher

Includes discussion of J.C. Wylie’s role in the creation of the Combat Information Center:

The first CIC was a joint invention of Cole and Wylie. In battle, rather than stationed at the after steering position as dictated by convention, Wylie’s station was the PPI [SG radar] scope (the 2,100-tonners were the first destroyers fitted with this equipment as built)—which let him see anything as it developed.

“Wylie stayed in that room on that scope, guiding us and calling out to Capt. Cole,” remembers Fred Gressard. “In the middle of the battle [of 12–13 November], Admiral Callaghan said ‘cease fire’, which was unbelievable. Then Cole said, ‘How do we get out of here?’ and Wylie gave him a course—they were always within earshot during battle; a great team. Afterwards, the CIC was adopted by the whole Navy.”

J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz?

NerveAgent’s post that launched the Wylie Comeback Tour.

Towards a General Theory of Strategy: A Review of Admiral JC Wylie’s “Military Strategy”

by “seydlitz89″

When “Strategy” Is Not Strategy…

by “seydlitz89″

Worth Reading: Special Operations and Strategy: From World War II to the War on Terrorism

by “Joseph Fouche”

Wylie’s Military Strategy

by J. Scott Shipman

Cyber Warfare…Brought To You By J.C. Wylie

by Adam Elkus

Revisiting JC Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy – The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations

by Lukas Milevski



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