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The Desert of American Strategy

“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 ?

15 Responses to “The Desert of American Strategy”

  1. Schmedlap Says:

    Strategy-formulation at the national level is difficult when the executive does not have the skill to implement a strategy and lead the nation. That is the case with most modern Presidents in our country. They are unable to implement a strategy and then get the nation to follow, so most of them have simply implemented policies that pandered to the prevailing mood of the nation. Not saying it’s a bad thing. Just sayin.
    GW Bush might have found a way around this. Rather than attempting to implement a strategy and then lead the nation, he expended all of his political capital on foreign policy choices that would almost inevitably box in his successor with a limited set of options. In effect, he didn’t implement a strategy and lead the nation, so much as he made alternatives impossible or not very feasible. Again, not saying that’s a bad thing. Just sayin.

  2. T. Greer Says:

    I am not sure the way this discussion has been framed is helpful. Kings of War limits its strategists to those of the military profession – an err, in my opinion, as strategy is more than a military art. On the grand scale it encompasses everything from economics to demographics, and just as military strategy is scalable down to operations and grand tactics, so too can strategy specific to these other realms be found. Of course, there is a  great corpus of American works on business strategy, but there is also a fair number of books concerning strategy as practiced by economists, diplomats, activists, intelligence operatives, and dissidents as well. Do these works have no place in the vaulted halls of strategic thought? It is hard to look at a book like Peter Ackerman’s Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the 20th Century and not conclude that they are serious additions to the strategic canon.


    @Schmendlap: I do not think the issue being discussed here is so much a deficit in strategic practitioners as it is a shortage in strategic theorists.  Rid is interested only in those who developed body of writing – practitioners like Kissinger and Kennan do not seem to cut it. Unless Bush sits down and boils his actions down to formulas, he could never be considered, coherent strategy or no.

  3. joey Says:

    @ T.Greer, I think the point was why there was a lack of Military Strategists.  The answer being a small army and a lack of interest (suspicion) of military affairs for most of American history.  No doubt this will change with US becoming a more militaristic culture, as in post Vietnam to the present. 

  4. Dave Schuler Says:

    Any yardstick that values theoreticians over practitioners will tend to give more weight to Europeans.  The essential question is whether you judge a strategist by the written record he left or the victories he accomplished.

  5. Phil Ridderhof Says:

    It sounds like the critieria is a combination of originality of thought and pervasiveness of influence. Combining both of these qualities requires both ability, the opportunity (and motiviation) to write (rather than just act), and the happy accident of history to be writing about the correct subject, befiore anyone else and in such a postion that others pick up the book and agree with it. This list also only recognizes individual thinkers.
      As options, (and I don’t agree with all the theories/postions put forward by these authors)I’d offer up: RADM Henry Eccles USN, BGen Billy Mitchell,  the combined authors of the USMC Small Wars Manual, VADM Art Cebrowski USN and ADM Bill Owens USN.

  6. joey Says:

    Longevity of thought is a good yard stick, people still read Clausewitz and Sun-Tzu, more to the point it took a longtime before Clausewitz’s became excepted and understood.  It was 100 years before a general war in Europe broke out and military’s got to tryout Clausewitz on a grand scale.  If Sun-Tzu is strategy in the broadest scene, as a series of timeless maxims, then Liddell Hart is the exploitation of Technology by its best possible use.  Judging by the development of the Blitzkrieg, where a theory was lifted and refined by a small group of officers, who had the good fortune to have a Commander in Chief who was won over by there arguments,  the worthlessness of most "stratagy" books ala Colin Gray ect are evident.  Sun-Tzu’s of this world offer good rules of thumb for the broad sweep of strategy,the Liddell Harts who provide the foresight to harness the possibilities of new technologies, and the Guderians who can harness it  into an operational doctrine.  Where are the Liddell Harts of today? who are the guys that are writing now how can see the possiblites of developing technologies?  and where are the officers who are seizing on those writings and developing a new operational doctrines.  Is there a well connected Chinese officer out there reading John Robb and dreaming up a new operational doctrine for the PLA…. probably not,  but it bears thinking about.

  7. Shlok Says:

    We’ve had a lot of strategic thinkers, as listed above, just with progressively uneven saturation.
    Couple factors why:
    Acceleration of life. Time has diminished. So we focus on the immediate. This war, this time, this battle, this image.
    A shift from national to primary or market loyalties. Results in a focus on immediate, personal utility of strategy, which is why the business sector has been more receptive than the lay public or even political types.
    However, this focus on the now and personal utility also has the effect of disintermediating the strategic conversation. No more relying on a remote grand theorist. Everyone’s looking for their piece for an edge.
    Strategy is being developing all over the place. Every biz blogger is putting out a part. Same with warfare. (a la Company Command, SWJ, KOW, etc and if Adam has his way, LOLcatz.)
    Sure, it’s different than the way we’ve historically done this. But, in doing so, it’s keeping pace with the new, distributed, open source nature of warfare.
    As with any long tail, there’s room for everyone but few will gain super traction. I suspect it will be those who address the two factors listed above – personal utility over the concerns of the state (tough for academics), and writes with the accelerating pace of life in mind (even tougher for academics).

  8. YT Says:

    "300 + years of tribal insurgency to subdue"
    Sorry, off thread. But do ya think the U.S. of A at present can spare three centuries for COIN?

  9. Oldpilot Says:

    Since strategy cannot be reduced to a three-, four-, or five-letter acronym, the U.S. military has no interest in it.

    In the comments on that same KOW blog entry, you will find a short digression on why unmanned don’t have a better name. UAV, it seems, is morphing slowly toward RPA. Evidently the word "drone" does not have the right aura of special knowledge. ”

    Boyd rules (check my website). Blue skies! — Dan Ford

  10. seerov Says:

    The Europeans also existed during a time when power was more a function of military might.  America came in to its own when soft power (markets, diplomacy, discourse) became more prominent, henceforth (as Zen points out) America produces grand strategists in other fields.   

  11. seerov Says:

    Another reason for America’s perceived lack of strategists may be that these people don’t write for the public.  I assume that very bright people work in covert think tanks for government or for private forces.  These people run very powerful mass human behavior simulations and I’m sure have strategy sessions for all contingencies.  The difference between the Europeans and these modern covert strategists is the perceived enemy.  The Europeans  fought for and blood and soil against other States or Feudalistic families.  The American elite see other American citizens as just as dangerous as other states, or non-state actors.  Therefore it only makes sense that the elites keep their strategists from publishing their strategies, since the public may not exactly "support" these strategies if they knew about them. 

  12. zen Says:

    Most excellent comments!
    YT – No. However, the Indian Wars were different in one critical way. Those were wars of conquest with no concept that the land was "alien", it was "ours". It wasn’t third party COIN.
    "In the comments on that same KOW blog entry, you will find a short digression on why unmanned don’t have a better name. UAV, it seems, is morphing slowly toward RPA. Evidently the word "drone" does not have the right aura of special knowledge. ”
    Heh. True.

  13. T. Greer Says:

    One could further note that the impetus for the Indian wars was the increasing scope of white settlement and/or economic development of the areas occupied by the tribes. I see few Americans trooping off to open silver mines or establish farming communities in Afghanistan.

  14. A.E. Says:

    I thank Shlok for his shout-out about my interest in lolcats. But I think Joseph Fouche has pioneered the integration of lolcats into blogging…

  15. Joseph Fouche Says:

    I can has grand strategy?

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