It’s about reaching the decision, not victory: strategic theory and the difficulty of taking action


As students of the Defence Studies Department grapple with strategic theory this winter, a useful way to begin is to consider the purpose of strategic theory and the work of ‘that dead Prussian’. One perspective on this issue is that we are engaging with why reaching decisions in war is difficult – not merely why certain decisions in particular wars were the right ones. Answering such questions requires intellect as well as experience. The conduct of war is as much an intellectual activity as it is a physical one. Planning and conducting organised violence for political purposes, from the smallest tactical engagement to the grand strategic level, demand powers of comprehension, multilateral thought, organisation, and decision that can test even the most agile and sharpest of minds. The thoughts and concepts developed by the likes of Carl von Clausewitz, Henry Lloyd, Sun Tzu, Antoine Henri Jomini, and Mao Zedong – to name but a few – combine to constitute what we today call strategic theory. Many classic theorists melded experience and intellect into strategic works that continue to stand the test of time and the political, economic, and technological changes since they committed their ideas to paper. No matter the time and place, reaching good decisions that produce the desired strategic results remains at least as difficult as it was Sun Tzu’s day. The strategic theories we use today are based on the desire to educate us in what to consider when making strategic appraisals and decisions in war, and not in how to win a particular set-piece battle.

My own research involves using the experience and thought which informed ‘classical’ strategic writings for thinking about the use of spacepower and the possibilities of space warfare in the 21st century. The base elements of strategic theory allow us to consider the various manifestations politics, uncertainty, passions, friction, and intelligent competition in any scenario. For my research, it means that space warfare involving satellites, rockets, lasers, and particle beam weapons will also be ultimately political, emotional, and uncertain in its fundamental nature. Strategic theory provides timely and timeless insights into the pervasive nature of war that does not change across time and space.

This sort of theory is not one that can be held accountable to being ‘proven’ like the laws of gravity and thermodynamics that can accurately predict the movements of bodies in the cosmos. Rather, strategic theory is more of a philosophical lens used to study and teach about the practice of war. Such theory can only be more or less useful for the task it has assigned itself, not whether it is objectively true or false. This perspective gains its weight not only through the persuasiveness of its own arguments, but also through its relative consensus among the works of numerous strategic thinkers. Strategic theory, then, is a collection of propositions and concepts that help us think in more constructive terms about war, regardless of our own time and space.

Whilst Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have often been compared regarding their insights on the political nature of war, civil-military relations, and the psychological aspects of conflict, many others have thought along the same lines. The most persuasive of the commonalities between them all is that such theories of conducting war are about educating the mind to consider all the possibilities open to the commander or leadership with a free and critical mind. With such a plethora of possibilities, and how only some concepts can be applied at certain times, we gain an insight into why strategy is so difficult in practice.

Principles and concepts in strategic theory are a point of departure to consider your options for action, which can provide mental structure to the chaos of reality and guard against unhelpful dogmas at the same time. In other words, strategic theory is not a strategy. Strategic theory should be useful in any circumstance to help you develop a strategy for any particular scenario. This approach is used in the seapower theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and Raoul Castex. Their seapower theories are the intellectual bases or frameworks for forming applied maritime or naval strategies. Mahan, Corbett, and Castex did not argue that decisive battle would always grant you the strategic success you sought, but grappling with the difficulty of why decisive battle only sometimes succeeds in bringing about a strategic result would help you decide when a decisive battle at sea may be worth pursuing or denying. Engaging with these questions in the classroom develops the strategic intellect. For example, we learn more about the practice of maritime strategy not by asking how Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar, but by examining how and why Nelson chose to impose battle upon the French at Trafalgar in the first place.

Consistent and long-term reflection is required to develop the mind-set and attitude to learn principles, detach from those principles to clear your mind, and then see the possibilities open to you. Yagu Munenori instructed that it is a sickness to be obsessed only with winning, or only with the offence or the defence. A keen mind is required to understand what is possible and necessary in any given scenario. This intuitive grasping of strategic truth at any moment is what Jon Sumida referred to as the ‘undermind’ in Clausewitzian theory, and is also evident in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s teaching style which draws on the educational styles of Zen Buddhism.

Principles discussed in books and classrooms on strategy include the duel, the centre of gravity, concentration and dispersal, attack and defence, decisive engagements, friction, and the politics, passions, and uncertainty of war. Munenori, Musashi, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz can help outline the various lessons from the applications of such ideas in the past, but they cannot tell you when or how you should apply them next. Clausewitz urged you to strike the centre of gravity of an opponent when there is one and if you can strike it without undue risk; Sun Tzu tells you to adapt asymmetrically to the enemy’s weaknesses but also to not merely be reactive to the enemy; Munenori cautions you against single-minded offensive actions yet admonishes defensive obsessions; Musashi tells you to understand your foes as well as your own side’s nature, but your own deviancy from norms must be embraced. None of these theorists will tell you how their abstractions will work in your particular situation. A critical and thoughtful intellect is required to do that, and through critically applying such concepts, you sharpen your intuitive grasp of the nuances of conducting warfare.

Michael Handel argued persuasively in Masters of War that the seeming contradictory observations within the works of individual theorists are more instructive for thinking about warfare than the few disagreements between them. They all grappled with the difficulty of applying the strategic theory, of why strategy is so difficult to do. All argue in their own way that understanding this difficulty is the key to strategic education.


Further reading:

Carl von Clausewitz On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans., ed. (Princeton UP 1984) Book II in particular.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings, Thomas Cleary trans., ed. (Shambala, 2003), also contains The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War by Yagu Munenori

Raoul Castex, Strategic Theories, Eugenia Kiesling, trans., ed. (Naval Institute Press, 1994)

Jon T. Sumida, Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997)

Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (Routledge, 2001)

Image: Miyamoto Musashi, via wikimedia commons

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