Is Strategy Dead?

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a “zen“]

[Photo credit: Peter Velter]

Is strategy dead?

Strategy seems to be widely admired in Western governmental circles, but no longer practiced in matters of state.

I am not saying strategy has been forgotten. Far from it. Strategy is still debated,  honored nostalgically (“ah, Containment!”), passed on ritualistically in war colleges, frequently demanded by opposition politicians and its value is regularly extolled in white papers. We admire, ruefully, the use of strategy by others (Beijing, Moscow, ISIS) and regret the sting of its lack in our own efforts. We have universities that grant degrees in strategic studies, scholars who write learned tomes on the art of strategy. Americans love business strategies, sports strategies, investment strategies, learning strategies, strategies for your career, strategies for self-improvement or to find the perfect mate.  We call a very wide variety of non-strategy things “strategy” because we love the word so much. The only thing we don’t seem to be able to do with strategy is practice it.

All of this other “strategy” noise is merely the sound of mourning for an art which has been lost.

Why can Westerners no longer “do strategy”? The reasons I suspect are twofold but are interrelated: The Europeans as a whole now lack a military capacity that would render a strategy meaningful. America, by contrast, still has great military capacity but chronically lack a strategy that would make American use of force meaningful in any given conflict.

In both cases, the root problem is political, albeit expressed differently.

Europeans are largely in agreement as to the nature and purpose of their social contract and choosing to dismantle their Cold War defense establishments was a decision financially consistent with the strong European preference for extremely generous welfare statism and free-riding on American military power. Let’s not mince words, the nations of Europe are in retirement and are unwilling to fund even their basic national security needs, much less their NATO obligations. It is a calculated choice to hollow out NATO and the Europeans made it a decade ago.

Americans by contrast, are deeply polarized as to what kind of nation they wish to be at home. These divisions over fundamental cultural values and social mores have created a kind of schizophrenic, Frankenstein monster, “meritocratic” ruling class that shares a bottom-feeder, careerist, anti-democratic, ethos of oligarchy while fighting vicious kabuki partisan battles to keep each side’s exploited grass-roots political tribe energized, angry and divided.

Because American wars are now fought and opposed primarily for domestic partisan advantages that lead to later financial career advancement for politicians, strategy has largely been displaced by politics and by law, an honorable discipline likewise under siege and partially mastered by our political class to warp for their own benefit. Politicians are far more comfortable with politics and law (most are lawyers, after all) than strategy.

Politics, of course, has always played a role in formulating strategy. It is politics which envisions ends and crafts policies that frames and sustains the use of strategy to claim rewards on the battlefield and the conference table. There should be, when things are going well, harmony in the relationship of politics, policy and strategy. The problem arises when politics attempts to substitute for strategy or leaders are willing to pay high strategic costs abroad for transient and trivial political benefits at home.

In my view, that is where we are today, but I realize opinions vary. So I will ask again:

Is strategy dead?

39 comments on this post.
  1. Lynn C. Rees:





    A (very) few stray thoughts as to why:


    The Diary of James K Polk illuminates how tightly politics and strategy are coupled in the political system of the United States. Politics is the division of power: patronage is its blocking and tackling, its bread and butter. It’s surprising how much of Polk’s time was consumed by managing patronage and how consequential adroit management of patronage was. Many of Polk’s most bitter political opposition came from within Polk’s own Democratic Party and much of it was provoked by what they saw as Polk’s favoritism toward their rivals. They would oppose Polk’s foreign policy and war measures simply out of patronage-incited pique (according to Polk, sometimes with justification).


    At the beginning of the war, Polk spent as much time ensuring that officer appointments in the army went to a balanced mix of Whigs and Democrats and between different Democratic factions (carefully chosen to maintain sectional balance between North and South and East and West and the several states) as he did launching his strategic initiatives.


    One example: Polk assented to enrolling a large number of Latter-day Saint refugees into the Army. His recorded justification was lessening future LDS hostility toward the United States since it was general knowledge that the Saints were looking to settle somewhere in the land Polk wanted. This led directly to the Mormon Conquest of Arizona and SoCal by the Mormon Battalion led by Phillip St George Cooke, a Virginian who later stayed loyal to the Union even though his more famous son-in-law betrayed his country and went over to rebels. Here is politics and strategy so intertwined as to be inseparable and even indistinguishable.


    It seems that Polk balanced his political calculus with some considerations for merit. Polk knew what his primary goals were in fighting the war with Mexico: he personally issued the orders to Kearny on land and Stockton at sea to seize New Mexico and California. While Stockton was probably known to Polk as a Democrat, Kearny was probably appointed for his demonstrated record of competence and intimate knowledge of the Southwestern theater.


    Polk drive much of the strategy formation process himself but he used his Cabinet as his primary sounding board. Most of Polk’s cabinet officers were barons of the Democratic Party (also selected with an eye toward sectional balance). Most were more prominent than he was prior to his surprise nomination and election. Most had past and future presidential ambitions.


    Secretary of State and future Worst President of the United States Ever James Buchanan is emblematic. Polk’s vice president, George M. Dallas was Buchanan’s bitter rival for power within the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and they constantly feuded with Buchanan emerging the victor after Polk pressured Dallas into casting the tie vote in the Senate for Polk’s tariff reductions that Dallas’ constituents rightly opposed. As the war progressed, Buchanan flip-flopped on his positions as his political antennae detected changes in the political winds.


    He was lukewarm and cautious on the war at the beginning, even proposing that the U.S. hold a defensive line approximating the current U.S.-Mexican border rather than proceed deeper into Mexico. As U.S. victories piled up, Buchanan became more aggressive in his Cabinet meeting advocacy of seizing territory with substantial incumbent Mexican populations, a move Polk consistently avoided because of the difficulty he foresaw in absorbing large numbers of Spanish-speaking Catholics into the English-speaking Protestant culture of the United States. Buchanan would say one thing in public, one thing in Cabinet meetings, one thing to Congress, and another thing in his chronic leaks to the press.


    Polk’s turbulent relationship with Sen. Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO) is even more emblematic of the politically driven nature of American strategy formation. Benton supported acquisition of further territory by the U.S. though he was lukewarm about how Polk went about doing it. Benton was instrumental in arranging for his son-in-law John C Fremont to be in the vicinity of California when it came time to foment revolt. He also made helpful suggestions like recruiting Catholic priests to accompany the armies invading Mexico to reassure the Mexican people they weren’t being subjected to a Protestant crusade. This was done with the valuable assistance of Bishop (later Archbishop) of New York John Hughes.


    Benton was the proponent who persuaded Polk that victory in Mexico required seizing Veracruz and then occupying Mexico City. Benton was instrumental in fetching a merchant acquaintance who helpfully brought a map of Veracruz and its environs to the White House where the Cabinet could examine it in detail. Polk wanted Congress to authorize him to appoint Benton a lieutenant general so he could send Benton to lead the attack on Veracruz and on to Mexico City. Polk and Benton’s opponents blocked Polk’s nomination. Benton’s cordial relationship with Polk soured after Polk backed Kearny over Benton’s son-in-law Fremont in a dispute that led to Fremont’s court-martial for mutiny (Polk commuted the guilty verdict) and, of course, Benton’s perception that Polk had shorted him in patronage. Benton began to actively work against Polk in the Senate.


    Polk constantly sought to find himself a reliable Democratic general to command operations against Mexico but found himself forced to send Whigs. Commanding General of the United States and Whig Winfield Scott was going to be sent to the Rio Grande before war broke up. His accusation to the Secretary of War that the Administration’s policy threatened to “have a fire in his rear from Washington while he met a fire in front of the Mexicans”. The infuriated Polk sacked Scott and dispatched the at that time politically nebulous Zachary Taylor in his place. Later, as Taylor won victory after victory, it became apparent that Taylor leaned Whig and that his 1848 presidential campaign was accompanying him on his 1847 campaign (and issuing press releases from the front), Polk reduced the forces at Taylor’s command in favor of the descent on Veracruz. After his attempt to appoint Benton fizzled, his preferred alternate Maj. Gen. William O Butler (D-KY) was still recovering from wounds incurred during the battle of Monterrey. Polk, reluctantly, decided to send Scott. At least he wasn’t the more threatening Taylor. When fortune deals you two Whigs, play them against each other.


    Polk constantly griped about Scott’s strategy, his cutting loose of his supply lines, his failure to be aggressive enough (by Polk’s armchair measure), and his fear that Scott was making Whiggish policy in the field. Polk dispatched the chief clerk of the State Department, the Jefferson and Madison protege now fallen on desperate times Nicholas P Trist, by reputation reliably Democratic, with strict instructions on what peace terms Polk wanted. Trist and Scott clashed at first but then fell into such bromance that the alarmed Polk ordered Trist’s recall. Trist ignored his recall and negotiated the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo with the defeated Mexican government on the basis of his original instructions. Polk was unhappy with Trist’s treaty when it arrived but the political balance of forces in Washington were such that Trist’s treaty was better than no treaty. He submitted the treaty to the Senate, fired Trist, and refused to pay Trist’s bills incurred after the date of his recall (which went unpaid until 1871, leading to an important Supreme Court decision on lobbying, by which time Trist was dead).


    Scott’s interference in what Polk considered policy questions led Polk to sack Scott (again) with extreme satifaction and replace him with the now healthy (and politically reliable) Maj. Gen. Butler. Details of the treaty were smoothed out by dispatching Polk’s Attorney General Nathan Clifford (D-ME) and Sen. Ambrose H. Sevier (D-AK), neither with previous diplomatic experience. (Mexican negotiators were not invited to come to Washington: (quoth Wikipedia) “the government that appointed them would probably be overthrown before they completed their mission, and they would likely be shot as traitors on their return”.)


    Polk also routinely suspected the War Department of being packed with Whigs (he occasionally reverted to an older time and called them “Federalists”). He noted that the War Department was filled by careerists who constantly supported expanding the army to increase their chances for promotion. He also noted (correctly, I think) that the military estimates the War Department sent to Congress were always inflated since War Department officials calculated that Congress would reduce them to a lower number which, while lower, would still be an increase in the departmental budget.


    Reading Polk’s final coda, his fourth State of the Union report, which he took great care in drafting, he links the way he waged war overseas tightly with the domestic Democratic struggle against the American system. Waging the war as he did (no tax raises but tax cuts, New Orleans flavored volunteer regiments, paying for the war by building a payment system outside of that controlled by private banks, &tc.) was a way of beating back the aspiring aristocracy of wealth and their conspiracy based on the unholy combination of national bank, national debt, high tariffs, internal improvements, and revenue sharing between the federal government and states. Polk explicitly draws a comparison between how the big government spenders of the Madison Administration went wrong at the end of the war of 1812 (among whom was the father of his vice president, the great Treasury Secretary Alexander J. Dallas (R-PA)).


    The outcome of the election of 1848 vindicated Polk’s fears: Zachary Taylor was elected president by the Whigs. His other detested Whig general, Winfield Scott, later ran and lost in 1852. By that point Polk was long dead from the cholera and the Democratic Party rode to victory by nominating Gen. Franklin Pierce, a reliably Democratic hero of the Mexican War (at least according to his official campaign biography written by his good friend, the novelist (and scourge of small children) Nathaniel Hawthorne).


    This highlights one unmistakable feature of American strategy making: how much the calculus of American strategy and the strategy of America’s enemies is driven by the fixed electoral clock of American elections. American political leaders time military operations to enhance electoral prospects by military elections before elections (Antitem (1862), Sherman’s capture of Atlanta (summer 1864), Armistice ending WWI (1918), the 2003 Iraq War, &tc). Timing operations to fall in more permissive times after elections (1992-1993 intervention in Somalia, Second Fallujah (started Nov. 7, 2004, five days after elections), the Surge (launched after the 2006 mid-terms), &tc.) can liberate a president to do unpopular things. America’s enemies time their activities to the two year/four year cycle, Tet being one famous example. Candidates may even collude sotto vocce with America’s enemies in an attempt to undermine their opponent (see “surprise, October” for examples of such bipartisan initiatives).


    Strategy formation never takes place at an antiseptic remove. It is always forced to dance to the demands of politics. And what is that dancing tune?

    1. NOW!
    2. NOW!
    3. NOW!

    If strategy wants a friend in Washington, it should buy a dog. Politics is an ungrateful master. It’s constant question of strategy? “What have you done for me lately?”. It’s preferred time for strategy to do its will? “Yesterday”. Strategy is a continuation of politics with the added illusion of technocratic rigor. The only time strategists are given scope to make policy under anything resembling a technocratic ideal is when politicians want to delegate failure to a luckless lackey. The strategist with time to strategize is either unemployed or on a blue ribbon commission to nowhere.


    America has a coherent strategy: global elite cooption. In many respects it resembles the strategy Luttwak claimed China followed/is following before Br. Greer took it apart. Witness Burma/Myanmar’s welcome onto the TED/Davos circuit. Burmese Army generals are being outfitted with financialization, B-list celebrities, and invitation to second-tier fashionable cocktail parties even as I write. The shared ideological consensus among American elites, though they fight over crumbs, is remarkably uniform, even if I believe it’s remarkably witless.


    My rule of thumb is that when D.C. disembodied heads complain about strategy or its implied absence, they’re usually complaining about politics they disagree with. While I disagree with the ends and means of the Jarrett Doctrine, the strategy the administration is following to implement it is appropriate to the ends they seek, however incoherent or abominable the ends and means will prove.

  2. Cheryl Rofer:

    Interesting…I agree with Lynn that the demand for speed is the enemy of strategy, and I recently considered that in a slightly different key. I attributed the problem mainly to the internet and the demands of the 24/7 news cycle, because I find “politics” to be too easy a condemnation. But yes, there is some of that too.
    I also agree that all too often when anyone complains about a lack of strategy, it is that they disagree with the strategy/strategies in action.
    I’ll refer to Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy to point out that “strategy” is, more wisely, “strategies” that are developed or drawn from the toolbox to meet the opportunities that present themselves. And I think Barack Obama is doing rather well there.

  3. seydlitz89:

    I think strategic thinking and/or strategic theory is “dead” in the US, which is due essentially to the corrupt nature of our political relations. “Strategy” as it is commonly used in the US today means the same thing as “wish list” so one will continue to hear that term bandied about a lot. Europe is in a very different situation imo. The best discussion of this I think is Sir Michael Howard’s article “War in the Making and Unmaking of Europe” published in his “The Causes of War”. A bit dated but surprisingly relevant.

  4. seydlitz89:

    “In our opinion, the claim that politics is superior to strategy is universal in nature. There is no doubt that it is true when the creators of policy constitute a young class advancing to a bright future and whose historical health is reflected in the form of a sound policy. But it always leads to doubts in states which represent the organized dominance of an obsolete class, which are on the historical defensive and whose regimes have become decadent and have been compelled to follow unsound policies and sacrifice the interests of the whole to maintain their domination. And in this case, unsound policies are inevitably followed by unsound strategy. This is why the protests of bourgeoisie military writers, particularly the French writers impressed by the fatal effects of the rotten politics of the Second Empire on strategy, are quite understandable. It is natural for strategy to try to gain emancipation from bad politics, but strategy cannot exist in a vacuum without politics and is condemned to pay for all the sins of politics. Only the September Revolution which toppled the Second Empire was capable of saving French strategy in 1870 from the fatal continuation of the political line of the government of the Second Republic.”
    Alexander Svechin, Strategy, page 85

  5. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach:

    Hi Mark-
    Yes, strategy is basically dead as an activity. It might be studied like the ancient polytheistic religions, but in practice, nobody actually DOES strategy anymore.
    My own evidence is just personal experience. I see in our wars (military strategy being a subset of national strategy) a tremendous dearth of strategy. It tends to go as far as management of the Time Phased Force Deployment Data (TPFDD) and then abruptly stops. Units “tip-fid” themselves to combat, get to theater, and then, uh, figure out what the guys you relieved were doing. Ludendorff be praised!
    Some smart guy once wrote a book…The Utility of Force. He basically indicted the western militaries for knowing how to deploy just fine, but having no idea how to employ themselves. He was right. Gen Zinni (Sun Zinni to you) basically agrees, and he recommends a wholesale reorganization of the federal government. He may have a point, but it would fail. (DHS rings a bell on that).
    I agree that the core problem is political, but the core problem is also baked into the cake: there is no real enemy. Sure, there are some serious punks and thugs out there who could use a good killing, or perhaps a punitive raid or strike. But nothing yet that’s existential in nature to coerce the oligarchs, bottom feeders, the corporations, and the citizens to get behind a political end state and prosecute whatever war or policy is decided upon until fruition. We’re too enameled with Apple Watches, Bruce Jenners’s sex change, and HRC’s menu choice at Chipotle (did she leave a tip? Did Huma?). We are too unserious of a country to do strategy on our own.

  6. T. Greer:

    A few quick thoughts:


    1. How do you know if an organization has a strategy? What distinguishes a bad strategy from no strategy?

    2. James K. Polk remarked to his friend George Bancroft that “there are to be four great measures of my administration”:

    * The settlement of the Oreon question with Great Britain
    *The acquisition of California and a large district on the coast
    *The reduction of the Tariff to a revenue basis
    *The complete and permanent establishment of the Constitutional Treasury, as he loved to call it, but as others often called it, Independent Treasury.

    As historian Daniel Walker notes in What God Hath Wrought “Judged by these objectives, Polk is probably the most successful president the United States has ever had” (p. 708).


    Lynn is right to focus on Polk as a paragon for our times. He lived in a day that was nearly as partisan and venomous as our own, and one where the was no great foreign enemy to unite the American people.


    He accomplished a great deal regardless. His example is worth thinking about–I have read many of the original congressional debates and newspaper reports surrounding the expansion of America into the California and Oregon territories, but have not touched Polk’s diary because of its great length. I might have to change that.


    2. Cheryl points out the compressed time frame of modern diplomacy and statecraft. I would add to this the increased demands placed on public figures themselves. That there was something wrong with the rushed way in which modern politics works first occurred to me when I was a freshmen in high school. The school was part of a program that allowed high schoolers to ‘shadow’ people involved in a careers that might be in their future. Being a lad consumed with great political ambition (I have since lowered my sights and reduced my appetites), I was assigned to shadow the mayor the city. This was a major American city of about one million people (the largest in the state), though at that time it was a few hundred thousand less. I was astounded at just how busy this man was. We rushed here and rushed there, continually moving from a grand opening to a memorial service to a union strike to a council meeting and so forth, never stopping for a moments rest. There was no time to talk with the man, and I do not think he had a spare three minutes in the day in which to stop and reflect on the tasks he had before him.


    And mind you, this guy was not a senator or a general, but a mayor.


    I don’t think politicians and statesmen of 21st century America have time to reflect on abstract notions like grand strategy. I suggested in recent post that one implication of Avey and Desch’s study on the way policy makers use political science research is that American policy makers do not read books. They do not study the problems before them. They can’t. They are consumed by the crises of the moment; it is a miracle that they can resolve those at all when they most devote so much time to Lynn’s “patronage” and its modern PR-filled descendents. The challenge is made worse by America’s unique position in global affairs. We have our finger in every pie so to speak and must react to crises in the Middle East, East Asia, Ukraine, and who else knows where. Our opponents are blest with a much more narrow focus.

    3. I also think we need to rethink our models for how strategy is created and implemented, especially for great powers not involved in a major war with a peer competitor. I’ve been tapping this drum for a while, but to reiterate: most of examples what we think of as successful ‘grand strategies’ are post-hoc constructions that rationalize dozens of different decisions made by dozens of different individuals into one coherent narrative. It was rarely apparent at the time that these decisions followed a clear coherent strategy and only became so in hindsight. This is not to say that these decisions lacked consistency or did not share a set of guiding principles. They did. It is just that these principles did not come from planning documents or orders from above. They were instead the product of a shared political culture and career/organizational incentives that prioritized certain behaviors and decisions over others.


    The expansion of Great Britain and France’s overseas empires are a rather compelling case example of this process. In hindsight France’s expansion across the globe seems quite planned and rational. But if you move down a level and actually examine how France came to possess its territories in Southeast Asia or Central Africa you find that in every case the territories were incorporated because of decisions made by soldiers, admirals, explorers, and governors on the ground. These decisions were rarely made with any input from Paris, and often directly contrary to what politicians in Paris desired. So why does the story seem so similar in each place? Tahiti, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cameroon, Madagascar — the same script replayed again and again with only slight variation. How could this be possible without central direction? It was possible because the men who represented French interests at the colonial level shared a very similar set of political ideals and faced a very similar set of administrative incentives. They agreed — even with folks in Paris did not–on what France’s overseas presence was for, and they were rewarded for acting on that vision. Detailed grand strategies and great men negotiating in smoky rooms were far less important than culture and incentive structures faced by the men actually tasked with implementing French strategy across the globe.


    The example of the colonial empires should resonate with us today. Like them, American interests are found across the globe and no single man can be expected to master them all. Absent some great enemy to drive our efforts and focus our attention, it is unreasonable to expect there to be anyone to create a Wedemeyer-esque strategy give coherence to every decision made by every American diplomat, military commander, or businessmen. What we should expect to see is the type of emergent strategy that characterized policy in imperial Britain and France. Heck, as Lynn just pointed out, this is what we see. You will be hard pressed to find any planning document that says “invite all tin-pot oligarchs to Davos to slowly co-opt them into our international system,” but that is exactly what we end up doing with them all.


    Final thought: this also provides some insight into Russian and Chinese complaints about Western culture and influence in their countries. We call them ‘conspiratorial’ for claiming we are out to subvert their power and solidarity with their people through trade and exchange and other implements of ‘soft power.’ And in a sense we are right — you will find no policy guide lines, no speeches, no central directions ordering the construction of such an intricate web. But central direction is not needed. All you need for this strategy to be pursued are a shared set of ideals and priorities among those American statesmen and businessmen who regularly interact with the elites of these countries. Unguided strategic behavior can be the most dangerous–and folks like Putin and Xi realize this.

  7. Lynn C. Rees:

    @T. Greer


    America is blessed with a wealth of strategies, Many are even detailed and coherent. Years were spent polishing them. They stand in a state of high readiness on shelfs and hard drives to be called upon in time of need.


    Time of need is key here. Politics is event-driven (to repurpose a term from my industry). Its intensity is driven by the tempo of what’s happening. Crisis is the most energetic driver of all. The particular choices made in forming the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers make the U.S. political system uniquely crisis prone: it’s natural state is inertia where only the most banal transactional politics seem to take place. It’s when crisis erupts, perhaps inflicted by the opportunity for regime change at fixed points in time every two years, that many things are enacted. Most of these enactments draw on those strategies and policies standing at attention for just such moments. However, when pushed through the sausage machine that is the division of practical power on the ground, they may not be quite themselves when they emerge at the other side.


    In many respects, strategy making is indistinguishable from the politics of personal ascendency among second and third tier officials. They may be civil servants whose personal agendas remain unattainable until freed by the right crisis. They may be appointees from the out party who spent years as a voice crying in the wilderness before their party becomes the in party when their time to shine comes. Being left to do with little time on your hands but to stroke your personal idee fixee’s in internal or external exile is where future strategies first begin to cohere. When events come, leads with too little time for technocratic mediation demand answers from their subordinate officials who, conveniently, have their answers preprepared.


    Watching the towers come down on 9/11, I could sense a period of political permissiveness where the interplay of chance and crisis created a space where long dormant agendas were free to roam. The gas pedal was down and crisis was flowing into long famished veins. The law enforcement and intelligence communities had a well-trod wish list that became the core of the Patriot Act. Having followed neoconservative discussion before that term became a catchall bete noir of the left, when Wolfowitz intimated in an interview a few days after 9/11 that state sponsors of terror were on the chopping block, I could already see Iraq looming behind the high percentage shot of Afghanistan. I expected the invasion of Iraq in spring 2002 rather than spring 2003 (spring is the Middle East’s campaigning season) because it would have exploited the period of maximum permissiveness (it seems that there was a critical JDAM kit shortage which made that difficult). It turns out there was more infighting between those second and third tier bureaucrats than a neocon conspiracy would have needed, a problem intensified by the need to reach bureaucratic consensus not only within the US government but with the Blair government and its second and third tier officials. Hence Iraq was invaded only after prolonged and tortured strife in officialdom had frittered away a priceless moment of event-granted (and event-rescinded) political permissiveness.


    Incompetent crisis exploitation is bipartisan: after the 2008 election, the current administration had another rare window of political permissiveness and then proceeded to do…nothing. There is a curious symmetry between Bush waiting for September 12, 2002 for Iraq push and Obama waiting until September 9, 2009 for health care reform push. You can do anything you want with bayonets except sit on them, though their points grow blunter the closer you get to September.


    It’s a general heuristic for strategy that the plans are always there but the dust has to clear from the battle of the bureaus before its tentative, tortured, and usually nominal form is discernible. In truth, strategy is little more than a post hoc euphemism for the ascendency of a coalition of low-level flunkies. And such ascendency is always equally tentative, tortured, and (usually) nominal.


    The event-driven nature of strategy is one reason I put more emphasis on understanding strategy as more of a pattern of ongoing management of perpetual flows (e.g. non-stop events) and stocks (e.g. those vast reserves of well-laid plans) rather than a process of defining a set of discrete ends and means.

  8. carl:


    What you described is a morally corrupt leadership class. So it isn’t a matter of strategy or even of politics. It is a matter of moral culture, a rotten one amongst the American leadership class. I’ll be damned if I know how we can fix it. It can be fixed as the Prussians were fixed by the French in 1806, but short of that…
    I agree with T. Greer about rethinking how strategy is actually created and implemented but no matter how you view it, or what it is, nothing good will come when we are led by a group of people we mostly wouldn’t trust to cover our six in a tight spot.

  9. Lynn C. Rees:



    It’s a matter of culture, politics, and strategy (let’s throw in tactics for the complete stack).


    As strategy is a continuation of politics with the admixture of power stocks and flows, so politics is a continuation of culture with the addition of power (and its division). Politics is culture made flesh. Straight is the path and narrow is the gate through which culture has to pass to become something real and that path and that gate is politics, the division of power.


    I use two (perhaps incompatible) working definitions for culture:

    1. the prioritization of thought (or desire (or purpose (or ad infinitum)))
    2. the art of the unspoken assumption

    The ideal destiny for every thought is:

    1. to win priority
    2. to become an unspoken assumption, an axiom no one challenges because no one knows it’s an axiom

    And the way a thought wins priority and aspires to unspokeness? Politics.


    Culture ultimately exerts more shaping power on man than politics but it does so through politics, though it is usually through an accumulation of political states over time and not one magical bolt from the blue. War is one strategy with the potential for drawing such bolts from an unwilling blue. Battles come and go but a Yarmook can be forever.


    Culture can persist outside of politics but it can only exert influence (and inspire violence) through politics. The Nag Hammadi library is a useful example of this. A collection of unorthodox Christian papyri, they were buried in the Egyptian desert by someone or another who wanted to preserve them for some reason or another. The most probable spur to their burial was probably the Roman state’s opposition to unorthodox Christian writings, of which the Nag Hammadi library is (now) a prime example. Whatever the reason, no one ever came back for the papyri and they laid forgotten until the 20C when some fellaheen dug them up. If they’d been discovered in an earlier political context, they would have been used for fuel or some other practical purpose by the locals. In the political context of mid-20C Egypt, there was a European antiquities market left as a residue of late Enlightenment interest in antiquities, Buonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 which served as an advertising platform for Egyptian tourism, construction of the Suez Canal, and the British protectorate drawn by an interest in that canal. So it passed from its fellaheen discoverers into private collections and, as a counter-blast of Egyptian national socialism, into the hands of the Egyptian state. And from those sources, it passed into Western cultural, political, and strategic contexts.


    Only the faintest shade of the library’s original cultural, political, or strategic context can be recovered. In that respect, the papyri as culture exist outside politics (or at least the politics of its original time) but it exists in a powerless state. Their rediscovery has politically revived the papyri by reinjecting it with power but its influence exists entirely within the cultural and political context of modern times. When some new aqe hippie touts the truths of lost Christianity or gnosis that draws on what’s been translated from the Nag Hammadi library, it’s only through a political and cultural context vastly different from 4C Egypt and for cultural prioritization and political distribution of the modern West.


    A nation rots from the culture down but the division of power has consequences that bubble up and reshape cultural priorities. Political events since the 1970s have set off an escalating social arms race that has increasingly thrown off cultural priorities that previously applied brakes to such escalation and intensification. This in turn intensifies political strife as each faction on ups each other with new cultural priorities often calculated to politically discomfort the others. This breeds the sort of ruling class we see today, more concerned with immediate acquisition of increasingly naked power through any means available rather than preserving a social ecology they don’t comprehend in their bloodlust.

  10. zen:

    Excellent discussion. Far better than my original post.
    A few disjointed thoughts, in no particular order.
    I always enjoy learning more about Polk, who should be on a coin, bill or Mount Rushmore. Forgetting Polk, which most Americans have, is a lot like the French forgetting Philip the Fair or the Spider King. He’s a useful example.
    I am much in agreement with Seydlitz, Carl and Nate, unsurprising given my post, with some qualification to the points raised by Lynn, Cheryl and Tanner. I think everyone agrees with the *primacy* of politics vice strategy ( though Cheryl’s comment on speed is an interesting wrinkle to that). I will guess that we all agree that the relationship is also *iterative* – strategy requires adjustment to realities in the field and at home but politicians must sustain a chosen strategy with political capital. There’s an ambiguous distinction in Clausewitz’s contextual use of “politik” that gets at this dynamic but Seydlitz is much better qualified to comment on that than am I. My point is that politics can have primacy but still be kept within a proportion/percentage of the dynamic that permits strategy (and strategists) to do its job. When politics become overweening, strategy against the external enemy is dangerously hobbled.
    I would very much like James Bennett to comment on Lynn’s riff on culture and politics, given that James is an anthropologist of the old school (i.e. when anthropology was a real empirical field discipline distinct from pomo/crit/ theorizing and political activism). I agree that culture is Ur- or meta- to politics. Not certain I agree it only exerts influence only through politics, including by violence, though politics certainly is value-added in mobilizing, directing, focusing and escalating violence against targets

  11. zen:

    Also please see T. Greer’s recent post at Scholar’s Stage.

  12. seydlitz89:

    As to the contextual use of “politik” no comment regarding “moral culture” whatever that is. From a strategic theory perspective whatever motives or (self-)justifications influencing “Politik” would belong to the political.

  13. carl:

    Moral culture to me is a bunch of things, sayings for simplicity’s sake, that you seek to live by. They are things you aspire to do and be and feel more, or less, ashamed when you cannot live up to them. And as importantly, their importance is recognized by those with whom you live and they will judge you by how you live up to them.
    Some the sayings that define a moral culture that is not corrupt are-
    What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
    If you say you are going to do it, then you gotta do it.
    Tell the truth.
    Not to tell the truth is dishonorable.
    The strong shouldn’t pick on the weak.
    The weak should be protected by the strong.
    and so forth.
    Those might be simplistic but most of us, at least me, are pretty simple and need simple guidelines. Simplicity is also the best thing when teaching children, which is where the precepts of a good moral culture are really learned. If your parents didn’t teach you, you ain’t gonna get it at a graduate seminar.
    Our problem is I am not sure most of the intellectual shining lights that populate the elite heavens inside the beltway, the elite universities, the media, i.e. the superzips, would be in unqualified agreement with any of those sayings. It seems to me there is always a ‘yeah, but…’ thrown in there that will allow them to do whatever it is that pleases them at the moment. Moral rot. With reference to T. Greer’s article in Scholar’s Stage (if I get the concept properly), no more asabiyah.
    The funny thing with us Americans though is this. The superzips have lost asabiyah but I don’t think us flyover people have. I think we mostly still have it despite the superzip’s, especially the media’s, tireless and constant attempt to have us toss it in the name of ‘nuanced and sophisticated appreciation of life’s complex paradigms’ or whatever the heck else they are peddling at the time.

  14. seydlitz89:

    First off, are you the same carl I knew from Intel Dump days not really so far back? I’m the same seydlitz89.
    zen’s thread is about strategy, or strategic theory, or at least “strategy” . . . that’s what we’re talking about imo, not something else, say for instance funny things about Americans . . .
    An American upbringing . . . I would recommend one mixed with national service at the strategic; firm ground at home mixed with extensive contacts abroad. I was lucky coming of age in the 1980s. Some would say the country’s on another track now then it was say in 1984, and I would agree, but that’s not really strategy is it? Rather it’s culture.
    What then is Politik or simply politics? Politics is all about power relations, who gets what, when, where, how . . . If we’re talking strategy then it primarily concerns organised violence as a means. Who pays for that is very much the most basic question, even before the actual policy. Funny how some try to write off politics as if it it weren’t really there, starring at them with their sad clueless faces . . . as they get consistently grifted with each new adventure . . . whittled away a sliver at a time. Any idea what that means? I think a lot of people in the US and Western Europe do.
    Maybe that’s finally where political morality comes in, ya think? Where you come to the point, I’ll say as a man, where you have to take a stand and say, “No more.”
    “Superzips”? The political financial elite, or simply “Cheneyites”? This works for me. The basic political question would then be submit or resist . . .

  15. larrydunbar:

    I mean, in the context of other my comments, isn’t the real “problem” in the fact that there is only one MICC, but on multiple continents?
    So on topic, it is process over strategy, instead of strategy over process.
    In other words, today’s environment, outside of a few, wealthier, and older American Generations, America favors process over strategy.
    I suppose it is a good thing that we (the older generation of Americans) are not going to be around for much longer, as the newer are more connected.
    I just have to wonder: connected to what?

  16. larrydunbar:

    As for connection, it is Putin’s Russia who is the last to connect, if it ever does, to the MICC (Military, Industrial, Congressional, Complex).
    I believe there is no logic within the Russian system, much thanks to Stalin, that allows for such a connection, so something will have to change for this to happen.
    In other words, Russia is the outliner.
    Iran seems to be conforming, at least as much as Turkey and the E.U. has, and it is up to Russia (and Bubba American) that needs to catch up.
    As Bubba America has little power, except in some small way in the Republican party, what happens next is really mostly up to Russia.

  17. James C. Bennett:

    This is a worthwhile discussion. I would agree with those who say that American strategy has almost always been a fallout from the American political cycle. The model of would-be strategists preparing their strategy from the exile of the out years, and then tang it up as crisis presents opportunities, is consistent with my own time in Washington working on policy for my own professional area.

    The definition of culture that we used in America 3.0 was “Patterns of behavior, persistent but not immutable, that are propagated over multiple generations within a given human community.” I ran this definition by a well-known retired anthropology professor at Cambridge and he agreed that it was a reasonable one.

    By this definition, most of what L.C. was talking about as culture, I would term narrative, or ideology. This sits as a layer above culture, which is the fundamental layer of a society and deals mostly with bedrock issues such as how the individual members of society see each other, what their definition of “family” is, and what the proper roles of members of a society are. Ideologies must be consistent with the underlying culture to be successful — an individualistic, Lockean ideologic system requires a society whose members see themselves primarily as individuals. Many Americans are not even aware that most people on the planet do not.

    Strategies, to be successfully adopted by a nation, must be consistent with the ideology and the underlying cultural assumptions. Otherwise, the members of society all not behave as strategy assumes they must. (For example, America should not adopt a strategy that assumes the wide use of the tactic of kamikaze attacks. Although Japan did not ultimately prevail using such tactics, it was for a time successful in inflicting higher-than-expected casualties on Allied forces.)

    The US is still capable of strategy. But as always in American history we will not get a chance to revive it until politics presents the right conditions.

  18. zen:

    Hi Larry,
    You wrote:
    “America favors process over strategy.”
    Yes we do. That is an important point. Just like we favor engineering solutions regardless of whether we are faced with a technical or wicked problems.
    Hi James
    Thanks – your observations also fit in very much with the comment thread about T. Greer’s post too.

  19. James C. Bennett:

    Another way to put it is:

    “Strategy’s not dead. It’s just resting”.

  20. Lynn C. Rees:



    I model the combination of culture, politics, strategy, and tactics as a stack based on my experience as a wide area network (WAN) engineer. The network stack, whether broad OSI stack or narrow TCP/IP stack, allows different layers of interaction with similar characteristics to be dealt with in a way helpful for planning and maintaining network architectures.


    For the (now defunct) OEM I worked for, our mission was to accumulate enough evidence to 1) blame the telco 2) have the customer scream at them. Since the telco was 1) evil and 2) usually at fault, this took care of 1/2 of issues called in. The prosecution began with the first level of the OSI model, the physical layer, which dealt with networking hardware that invariable invoked Pournelle’s Law (of Troubleshooting): “Cables do matter. When something doesn’t work, always check the cables and their connectors first.” This and more complex checks e.g. is the cable to the demarc good?, &tc. sometimes convicted our second priority target of crimes against networking: the user. From there we would proceed up the stack through firmware and software layers until the transport layer (real routers only do 4 of the 7 layers) and isolate the problem. Then we would try to fix it by fixing the configuration, updating the firmware/software, replacing the equipment (rare), or (most commonly) having them call the telco to see what the telco has broken.


    c. 2006 I noticed that the levels of war (strategy, sometimes operations, tactics) bore a useful resemblance to a technology stack. Tactics became my physical layer, the actual interface through which all interaction with the Other and the Outside World takes place. I would sometimes layer Operations next before I learned it was a communist conspiracy. Then I’d layer strategy and, following my interpretation of Vom Krieg politics. Later I refactored culture out of politics as my de facto application layer.


    My current revision of the CPSOT stack is:

    1. culture: the priority of stories
    2. politics: the division of power
    3. strategy: the balance of stocks and flows
    4. tactics: the unfolding interaction of (discrete) ends and means with the outside world

    A pattern of behavior modeled by a stack would be a (virtual) run up and down the stack from tactics “up” to culture and then back “down” to tactics. Any pattern or (as I would say) cycle of behavior would unfold as a repeating (or looping) sequence of outside world -> tactics -> strategy -> politics -> culture -> politics -> strategy -> tactics -> outside world. This cycle unfolds mostly unconsciously as orientation (to use the Boydean term, as I do). Some requires decision. A discrete cycle of interaction (or behavior) would vary mostly in persistence, visibility, balance of influence and violence, &tc.


    I tend to view culture as prioritization of persistent but not immutable compression mechanisms used to make the outside world fit the tiny confines of the human mind. I call such mechanisms “stories” (the word “narrative” is perfectly not cromulent). Control is closing the gap between the mental compression, the story, and the outside world by bringing the outside world into conformity with the story as much as possible. Power, divided by politics, is what gives a story force to control the outside world. Strategy keeps a division of power balanced between stocks and flows. Tactics nuts and bolts the outside world through an accumulation of discrete ends and means applied to the outside world.

  21. larrydunbar:

    Hi Zen,
    You said: “Just like we favor engineering solutions regardless of whether we are faced with a technical or wicked problems.”
    True enough, and I guess you mean that strategy handles wicked problems faster and better than just going through the process.
    On the other hand, there is a right and wrong way of going through a process tactically. Strategy is really about winning and losing, and wicked problems, like nuclear war, don’t give the planet much leeway when it comes to losing.
    That is why I think, in the west, war is fought as a process, and not strategically.
    In the process of war, the EU does what it does best, it has means to form the largest economy in the world–while the US does best and has the means to form the greatest military in the world. Together the way of war and peace is all the same process.
    Strategy is quicker, because it jumps over the process, but once tactics comes up to speed, as a way through the process, strategy is forgotten, because loosing becomes too big to fail.

  22. seydlitz89:

    Very worthwhile thread . . . essentially the narrative has become a political football in a strategic theory sense, at least since 9/11 for Americans. Who, that is which oligarchy, ends up with the “football” . . . will be able to influence . . .
    But there’s the catch. Weber’s social action theory? . . . value rationality against instrumental rationality and Borgmann’s device paradigm . . . which escapes the Cheneyites completely . . .
    Interesting times gentlemen.

  23. carl:

    I don’t think I’m that carl. I don’t remember being on that site.
    For me it all comes down to the worth of the man or of the men. Are they good and honorable or are they not? If you ain’t got good and honorable then you got nothin’ and strategical geniusizing of a kind that would amaze God won’t do you any good at all. At least not any good at all in a kind of society we would want to live in vs. say Putinlandia.
    No, I like ‘superzips’. Cheneyites is too narrow. It’s too much of a stretch for that word to cover people like Billary or the current inside the beltway crew.

  24. larrydunbar:

    Carl wrote: “For me it all comes down to the worth of the man or of the men. Are they good and honorable or are they not?”
    But “good” is usually equated with ideals such as right and winning. On the other hand, honorable is usually considered a position.
    I wonder what your honor would consist of if you were in a position aligned with ISIS instead with the Neo-Cons?

  25. larrydunbar:

    I mean, Cheney was a very honorable man, but very evil and seemed, in the context of his war, a loser.

  26. seydlitz89:

    From a strategic theory perspective, strategy is about political communities, that is pluralities, there is no such thing as the “strategy” of an individual. That would be tactics, as in the tactics of an individual rifleman. All related concepts such as “victory”, “defeat”, “war” refer to political communities. An individual involved in his or her own “war” is using a metaphor. Imo, L. Freedman confused this hopelessly in his book and on this blog when he conflated the individual with the political community in terms of “strategy”. Individual dynamics and group dynamics are quite different as Reinhold Niebuhr expressed very well in his classic, “Moral Man and Immoral Society”. What people do in terms of politics and their political community are many times things they would never do as individuals . . .
    Politics or Politik is inherently about power relationships within or between political communities. From a traditional Christian perspective, this is inherently evil since political domination rests basically on coercion or the threat of violence. The Sermon on the Mount rejects all of this and preaches a non-political perspective, or more a way of life with the goal of eternal life, not political success in this world. So “good” and “bad” are relative in many ways, but especially in how one looks at the political.
    To me in terms of “good” for myself as an individual, I would say it is first of all not intending to deceive, neither those I’m communicating with nor myself.

  27. zen:

    Seydlitz and I had an interesting point-counterpoint on this topic here:

  28. larrydunbar:

    “From a strategic theory perspective, strategy is about political communities, that is pluralities, there is no such thing as the “strategy” of an individual.”
    I agree that the committees of these political communities supply the “ways” and “means” of the strategy, but strategies are about forming a structure, and I don’t think political communities do well when it comes to structure.
    I mean strategy forms a structure (end).
    You can start creating this structure through narrative decision making (see Cheap Trick at Tempo something dot com), but then a narrative starts with an individual voice.
    So maybe strategy is all about the individual, after all tactics doesn’t need the individual, only a committee of replacements if the first one fails.

  29. seydlitz89:

    You are missing my point larry, the leadership of the political community of course makes the decisions regarding war or peace, how could it be done otherwise? That is what we could describe simply as “sovereignty”, but they are not acting as individuals . . . but rather as leaders of said political community . . .
    If the leadership act as individuals then politics doesn’t really exist, or rather the political/social/economic elite have so lost the plot that they are in danger of losing control . . . refer to Svechin quote in #4 above.
    Don’t see how Venkat’s “Double Freytag Triangle” works here except as a model of how things can go terribly wrong . . .

  30. larrydunbar:

    “If the leadership act as individuals then politics doesn’t really exist, or rather the political/social/economic elite have so lost the plot that they are in danger of losing control”
    Doesn’t really exist, or just tactics. If that was the case, politics is just tactics, then you can replace one committee “leader” with another one, without losing or slowing the process down. Which sounds more likely today’s model when you look at today’s politics.
    “Don’t see how Venkat’s “Double Freytag Triangle” works here except as a model of how things can go terribly wrong . . .”
    Where you say “wrong” I say “fail”.
    Strategy fails–there is a right and a wrong way of going through a process tactically.
    If you get the tactics wrong you can fail, but not necessarily lose strategically, unless you lose your resources (human and other means) or your way (if your culture turns away from you), and the structure or position you were trying to create strategically(the end)was the wrong one.
    As an example: is the position (Caliphate) ISIS holding the wrong one, are they still getting a buy-in tactically, and do they still have the means to hold that position, now that their leader is gone?
    In other words, are they still winning strategically, because they seemed to be when their leader declared his structure and position.

  31. seydlitz89:

    If politics are just tactics to the political elite then they have lost control. They simply assume that they will be able to retain political power no matter what mistakes/miscalculations they make . . . decadence, the main attribute of a political elite on their way out.
    “there is a right and a wrong way of going through a process tactically”. Perhaps in game theory, but in strategic theory no. There are policy goals which do not lend themselves to achievement by military means, no matter how flawless the tactical performance. A bad “strategy” is not only one that didn’t work, but also one that never had any chance of working, was incoherent from a strategic theory perspective. Once again we are talking about political communities, living, breathing, thinking entities who take the outcomes very seriously, unless of course they are so manipulated by their elites, but that manipulation won’t last forever and there will be a nasty reckoning.
    As to ISIS, it’s difficult to comment based on the level of US domestic IO . . .

  32. larrydunbar:

    “Perhaps in game theory, but in strategic theory no.”
    I agree 100%. Right and wrong is all tactics, which was a part of my point. Strategy is a “jump” over tactics. You may say a quantum leap over.
    “There are policy goals which do not lend themselves to achievement by military means,”
    Unless there is some political “way” of actually building the “means” to war. Perhaps work on the “way” to control latter.
    Cheney seemed to have no problem in controlling the individual.
    But then in the USA today, the control of the individual depends on what the leader sees as an “end”, and how much the individual believes in the leader.
    Many powerful people believed in Cheney, which is what I feel was the greatest evil of a Cheney influenced administration, considering we live in a Democracy. Or as the Federalist like to call, a Republic.
    I think we both agree on the thought control issue, I just think most of it comes from the leader, and you seemed to think it comes from people without power and vote anyways, not to put words in your mouth.

  33. larrydunbar:

    “A bad “strategy” is not only one that didn’t work, but also one that never had any chance of working, was incoherent from a strategic theory perspective.”
    It has been my experience that this is said by someone without a strategic position or never had one in the first place. Having many times myself been that person.
    If you are a tactician, My experience is that it is hard to walk in the shoes of a true strategist, even if it is only for the privilege of carrying his suitcase.
    But in answer to your question of good or bad, it seems to me that there is a bad position in an incoherent environment without trust, but, to a true strategist that position can be held by only two outcomes.
    One outcome is winning.
    The second outcome is losing.
    But then it was you who was doing the judging. Did the “bad” strategy win or lose?
    I mean General McCrystal wasn’t the only thing sent packing in Afghanistan. Didn’t his strategy leave with him?
    What was it that you were judging as “bad” strategy?

  34. seydlitz89:

    The military means have to be applicable to achieving the policy end. The first Gulf War of 1990-91 achieved that. We had a clear policy goal, the removal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait and a broad alliance to achieve that. We knew where to stop, since the political objectives were limited and the military forces were more than adequate to achieve those goals. We also knew where to stop since the political complexity of the region was well understood, that is the leaders at the time understood the limits of military power.
    I talked to my first former Iraqi soldiers two days before the US committed to Desert Shield. Our intelligence objectives were clear and we collected high grade intelligence which supported the operation throughout. Knowledgable sources were quickly identified and extensively de-briefed. All intelligence sources were treated professionally and humanely.
    Planning was based on facts and accurate information, not on stove-piped bs or wishful thinking. Area specialists were consulted and their input valued . . . the military operation worked well and supported the achievement of the policy goals. It was a very successful military operation, a casebook example of how to achieve strategic effect through military means.
    What happened after the war is something else altogether, while what happened in 2001-3 was essentially the opposite . . .

  35. larrydunbar:

    If you are suggesting bad strategy is when “the military means” are not “applicable to achieving the policy end”, I agree with you. For the most part, I think the first Gulf war was an example of something good.
    In that context, the first Gulf War could be thought of as both a good and winning strategy, if one was in a position to judge.
    But as most of the actors (those in position to judge) in the civilian leadership during the first Gulf War were the actors participating in the second, the policy “end” after the first Gulf War must not have been what they were looking for.
    For those in leadership during The Second Gulf War, the strategy in the First Gulf War may have been a winning strategy, but there was nothing “good” about it.
    Perhaps they just don’t see “good” the same as you and I, or, as I may have suggested, they were simply evil. 🙂

  36. larrydunbar:

    My point is, and it may be a weak one, strategy has a beginning and an end, but it starts with an individual.
    Where BushI ended, BushII began, but much of BushII’s strategy was built on the assumption that BushI had no winning strategy, not that it was good or bad.
    So your judgment is clouded by your bias(right or wrong) against this assumption of winning or losing.
    In other words, you may be correct that BushII’s strategy was wrong, but I think BushII, and his band of criminals, judged BushI’s strategy as a losing strategy.
    I think, because it starts with the individual, winning or losing is the only way one can judge strategy.
    So, do you think BushI had a winning or losing strategy? To me, if you think BushI had a winning strategy, it is not surprising to me that you find BushII’s strategy bad.

  37. larrydunbar:

    I used the term, “band of criminals” as if to suggest that something was “bad” in the whole thing leading up to the Second Gulf War.
    But then no one went to jail, so how bad could it have been?

  38. seydlitz89:

    Disagree. It is the political context that makes the difference and decides the issues of war and peace. Leaders don’t simply assume control and act as individuals, social/political dynamics are far more complex than that . . . that the criminals have never suffered anything for the calamities they have caused is due to the corrupt political relations they operate in. Not to mention the constant IO being employed . . .
    I think the use of “good” and “bad” needlessly confuses things and allows too much play for this dubious individualism of yours. Strategy in this sense is about the use of organised violence which is inherently bad in terms of any ethical system.
    More useful to understanding the relationship between strategy and non-strategy/incoherent strategy would be a Cartesian graph. One axis with successful/unsuccessful military operations and the other with coherent strategy/incoherent strategy-non-strategy on the other. Plot the various military actions and discuss . . . This would allow for some interesting variations and degrees of variation. The comparisons could be quite interesting and might provide additional insights. I would also add that a strategy (in terms of strategic theory) is not even necessary to have a war plan. It can be based simply on notions of exceptionalism along with massive force, as with Cheney’s Iraqi adventure, or to a lesser extent, BHO’s astrategic spasms regarding Syria.

  39. larrydunbar:

    “Leaders don’t simply assume control and act as individuals,…”
    As you say, no they don’t.
    Leaders assume command, and the force of that command is in the potential of the economy arising from the differential pressure between war and peace, within the political system.
    The economy represents the environment the political system operates in, and the scale tips in either direction (war or peace), depending on where the resources are going. “The bridge between group and individual selectionists may be hidden in another concept–that of the complex adaptive system. A complex adaptive system is a learning machine, one made up of semi-independent modules which work together to solve a problem. Some complex adaptive systems, like rain forests, are biological. Others, like human economies, are social. And the ones computer scientist work with are usually electronic. Neural networks and immune systems are particularly good examples. Both apply an algorithm–a working rule–best expressed by Jesus of Nazareth: “To he who hath it shall be given; from he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away.” (page 9 “Global Brain”, Howard Bloom author).
    Command and control can operate in that environment, under that algorithm, as either a distributive network or one that is decentralized depending on structure.
    But Caesar has command, while the individual, under God, has control.
    When Caesar’s command becomes a burden, as I think Thomas Jefferson may have said, the individual has a right to take control.
    When Caesar takes control, I think, within that context, it is called evil.
    “I think the use of “good” and “bad” needlessly confuses things and allows too much play for this dubious individualism of yours.”
    I totally agree with that assessment, and that is why I don’t think you can judge strategy as good or bad, but winning or losing.
    As I asked before: do you think, although tactically sound, that BushI had a winning strategy, and could you expand more on what exactly it consisted of? It was a strategy of containment, right?
    It seems to have been a winning strategy, but then Saddam did put a target on BushI, which was unhelpful in BushII strategy, to say the least.
    “More useful to understanding the relationship between strategy and non-strategy/incoherent strategy would be a Cartesian graph.”
    Ha! Very good, but my Cartesian graph, as Howard Bloom might suggest, has 3 axis (x,y,z) and 6 directions of movement.
    So one axis could be successful/unsuccessful, the other coherent and incoherent, but the third might be good or bad.
    As the third axis may point towards a fourth dimension, perhaps, and in dedication to this blog, we could label it heaven or hell?
    “I would also add that a strategy (in terms of strategic theory) is not even necessary to have a war plan.”
    I think you are correct. Strategy is only important if you plan on “winning”.