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The Desert of American Strategy

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

“Welcome to the Desert of the Real….”

Dr. Thomas Rid, at the excellent Kings of War blog, had a sharp historical observation:

The State of Strategy

Who produced the greatest strategists of all time, dead and alive? America or Europe?

Before wading into that minefield, we need some criteria, some points of orientation. The key should be a body of strategic theory, writings of general nature. Just making history or writing about it doesn’t count here. That excludes two sets of people who might otherwise be considered strategists or military writers: great military historians – like Hans Delbrück or Douglas Porch – and exceptionally gifted commanders, such as Napoleon or perhaps Petraeus.

First the old strategists of Europe. Most would go by one name only: Clausewitz, Jomini, Ardant du Picq, Hubert Lyautey, Joseph-Simon Gallieni, Thomas-Robert Bugeaud, Frank Kitson, Basil Liddell Hart, Robert Thompson, C.E. Callwell, Roger Trinquier, André Beaufre, David Galula, T.E. Lawrence, Giulio Douhet, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, Helmuth von Moltke, Engels, Lenin – to be fair in this little contest, we should not include those thinkers who predate the United States, such as Thucydides or Machiavelli.

Contrast this with America’s greatest classic writers of strategy: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, Bernard Brodie, and Samuel Huntington. (I hesitate to count John Boyd; he really didn’t write enough.)

….So how about living strategists? Given that America eclipsed Europe in terms of geostrategic weight some time in the first half of the 20th century, and given that the United States attracts the best brains in all fields, you would expect strategic tomes adorned with stars and stripes all over the place. But no.

….But whatever the metric, Europe is doing pretty well, then and now. Although it clearly seems we’re past our prime. The same cannot be said about the United States, which is probably still near the height of its power. For that, the strategic record is surprisingly thin

Let’s set aside the question of Sun-Tzu, Musashi,  Kautilya and other Asian strategists. Also the subject of John Boyd as Col. Boyd did not lack for kind words in the KoW comments section. We’ll just concentrate on Rid’s query of “Why so few American strategists of great stature?”. It’s a very good historical question.

I think there are a number of possibilities:

  • DEFINITION: Rid is talking about military strategists, however that is not the only domain in which strategic thinking can take place. If you look at strategic thinking in politics ( which fits well with including Machiavelli as a strategist), diplomacy or business then the claim for American strategists becomes much stronger. For most of our history, our standing Army was small and poorly trained, so our natural strategic genius found outlets elsewhere as captains of industry and statesmen. Hard to see Abraham Lincoln, John D. Rockefeller, Mark Hanna, J.P. Morgan, John Hay, Frederick W. Taylor, FDR, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, W. Edwards Deming, Peter Drucker, Kevin Philips, Richard Nixon and Bill Gates as lacking in a capacity for strategic thinking.
  • ABUNDANCE vs. SCARCITY: American conditions in terms of geography, political economy, population density and governance were historically radically different from those prevailing during most of European civilization. Strategy fundamentally involves choices and material abundance – such as a frontier with free or exceptionally inexpensive land- mitigates the need for hard choices. The US, for example, in contrast to European nations or Russia, never experienced real famine, shortages of vital raw materials or a stark dependency upon export markets for survival. If anything, material abundance presents too many rather than too few options, leading to a willingness to compromise on a mutually agreeable rather than a “best” choice because the sense of existential threat is absent.
  • IRREGULAR WARFARE: The Indian wars took 300 + years of tribal insurgency to subdue Native Americans. Conventional battle, by comparison was a relative and episodic rarity in American history until the 20th century.
  • DEMOCRACY vs. ARISTOCRACY-OLIGARCHY: American military history, until WWI at least, is dominated by a political cult of military amateurism, state and local militia as a safe “democratic” alternative to potentially “tyrannical” professional standing armies. European strategists were usually aristocrats enjoying rentier positions as absentee landlords or the patronage of court sinecures, which permitted them the luxury of unearned or nominally earned income on which to study and write. American officers were not so lavishly funded by Congress and many of our best military officers, at least in the antebellum period, were Southerners who were the sons of planter gentility. Postbellum military thought is not much to brag about until Mahan.

What other reasons do you see ?


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