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Two from the Comments Section on Wylie


Grip, the post by Lynn Rees generated comments linking to two further posts on the topic of Rear Admiral Joseph Caldwell  (J.C.) Wylie, Jr. and his  Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control which I suspect are of interest to many readers here:

Seydlitz89 – Towards a General Theory of Strategy: A Review of Admiral JC Wylie’s “Military Strategy” 

….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).

NerveAgent – J.C. Wylie: American Clausewitz? 

….To formulate his own theory, Wylie starts from four guiding assumptions:

1. There may be a war, despite all efforts to prevent it. The reasoning behind this point should be self-explanatory, but alas, liberal internationalists consistently fail to grasp it.

2. The aim of war is some measure of control over the enemy. This is one of Wylie’s most important points. With it, he explains the strategic object of war itself, above the operational focus of the Clausewitzian dictum of disarming the enemy. After all, as Clausewitz himself acknowledges, destroying the enemy’s army is a means to an end. The end is control. What “control” is will differ depending on the war itself and the value judgements of the parties involved. For the West, control usually involves the defeated being accepted back into the world community, but not as a threat.

3. We cannot predict with certainty the pattern of the war for which we prepare ourselves.Wylie would certainly take issue with all the rhetoric today that would have the U.S. abandon “obsolete Cold War thinking” in favor strategies geared primarily for irregular warfare. His point is that strategists must be provided with all the necessary tools from which they can craft plans to deal with individual contingencies, especially if official U.S. policy is to have full-spectrum capabilities.

4. The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This acknowledges that, if all else has failed, only land power can impose control upon the enemy.

From these assumptions, he develops the statement that is the core of his work:

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 war, and who exploits the resulting control of the pattern of war toward his own ends.

5 Responses to “Two from the Comments Section on Wylie”

  1. seydlitz89 Says:

    Thanks guys for the promotion of this post of mine.  I think nerveagent’s post perhaps the better to read before having read Wylie’s book and mine the better afterwards.  That said, as with most blogposts it could have done with some editing . . . I did a follow up on the Wylie post the next month which may be of interest . . .
    Notice that I did include “control” in my updated definition of strategy is this second post.  What is important to remember here imo is that – following Wylie – we are attempting to formulate a general theory of strategy, essentially the “timeless elements” which would be able to encompass every manner of conflict involving political communities, the various “arts of war” of the various epochs being compatible with this general theory . . .  

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Seydlitz
    I have refrained from commnting because I have yet to read Wylie, but I found your comment useful for something related that I am working on:
     “What is important to remember here imo is that – following Wylie – we are attempting to formulate a general theory of strategy, essentially the “timeless elements” which would be able to encompass every manner of conflict involving political communities, the various “arts of war” of the various epochs being compatible with this general theory . . .  ”
    Distilling out the elements that are universal common denominators is always harder than it appears. There’s always a class of aspects that are often but not always important variables or which are contradicted by important exceptions – maybe “contingently universal” (which is an oxymoron) or “almost universal” which won’t make the cut in general theory but nevertheless are useful to know as rules of thumb

  3. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    The title of this 1590 book is telling: An Arithmetical Warlike Treatise Named Stratioticos: Compendiously Teaching the Science of Nombers as Well in Fractions as Integers and So Much of the Rules and Aequations Algebraicall, and Art of Nombers Cossicall, as are Requisite for the Profession of a Souldier : Together with the Modern Militare Discipline, Offices, Lawes and Orders in Euery Well Gouerned Campe and Armie Inuiolably to be Obserued. Here are many of the conventional tropes of strategy still trotted out today here in an obscure 1602 book by Lodowick Lloyd.


    Here is one major hurdle on the road to a general theory: it has at least two components that need to be distinguished from one another:


    1. descriptive: what features recur across “strategic” scenarios over time and distance
    2. prescriptive: what is the optimal strategy for a “strategic” scenario


    Most stabs at #1 are usually hopelessly entangled with #2: from my strategic taxonomy this is to be expected since it is “contingently universal” that someone’s political fate hinges on how #2 is framed. Thus #1 must be shaped to better serve #2. Yet the attempt must be made: if #1 diverges from reality, #2 is doomed.


    In 1749, the Duke of Newcastle wrote:

    “Naval force, tho’ carried never so high unsupported with even the appearance of a force upon the continent, will be of little value…France will outdo us at sea when they have nothing to fear by land…I have always maintained that our marine should protect our alliances upon the continent; and they, by diverting the expense of France, enable us to maintain our superiority at sea.”

    Here is strategy fifty years before the word “strategy” started to leak into English. As with Moliere’s satirized bourgeois who discovers he’s been speaking prose all of his life without knowing it, leaders have been devising strategies good and bad from before history. At minimum, a general theory of strategy would be able to describe them in a uniform way even if it couldn’t prescribe in a universally contingent way.

  4. NerveAgent Says:

    as with most blogposts it could have done with some editing…

    That’s putting it politely!

    Still…I cannot help but be proud of the fact that, nearly 5 years after its publication, my post on Wylie continues to receive attention. Indeed, it seems that anywhere Wylie is discussed on the blogosphere, a link to my post will appear. Much of that traffic I owe to this blog, and particularly, Mr. Rees. 

    Thanks for all the links over the years.

    Also, after a 3 year hiatus, Visions of Empire is on the cusp of resuming operations. Content will be light over the next couple weeks, but I intend to start posting again regularly once I’ve cooked up some more substantive material.

  5. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Welcome back NerveAgent. I noticed when your last two posts came back online and even made a rare foray into teh twitters to retweet them. I look forward to the new additions.


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