Image courtesy of War on the Rocks.
By Major Matt Cavanaugh
Frank Hoffman and I are in raging, intense agreement – for the most part.
I wrote a short essay this past week describing my thoughts on a “Strategist’s Mission Statement.” This was a return to first principles – what is a strategist and what does one actually do? For example, if military strategists around the world, from Kabul to Korea, had a plaque on their desk citing their unique contribution to the nation, what would it read?
I started with a basic framework. There are three components to an effective mission statement: what does a strategist do, how does the strategist succeed, and why does the strategist ply his or her trade?
Here was my 39-word effort:
“To skillfully select and balance achievable ends, available means, effective ways, and acceptable risk to exploit some degree of control of the enemy and environment to secure military objectives, desired political outcomes, and strategic narratives consistent with national interests.”
The first clause speaks to the tactical levers the strategist pulls; the second clause is how the strategist gains initiative over the opponent; the third clause provides the success aim: strategic victory.
Over at War on the Rocks, Hoffman quickly responded with this discerning 33-word adaptation:
“To artfully design and coherently link achievable ends, allocated means, effective ways, with acceptable risks to generate, exploit and sustain a competitive advantage against an enemy to secure desired political effects and outcomes.”
I’ll pause here to offer my genuine thanks to Hoffman for his critique. I’m mindful that the battlefield punishes vanity (see: Achilles), so I welcome and appreciate such erudite counsel. To paraphrase President Reagan, for professional purposes, I am completely willing to exploit the wisdom and experience of my superiors. Let’s see what we can learn from this (geeky) strategic boxing match.
For staters, we’re in general agreement over the first clause. I wrote: “To skillfully select and balance achievable ends, available means, effective ways, and acceptable risk…” Hoffman countered: “To artfully design and coherently link achievable ends, allocated means, effective ways, with acceptable risks…” I like his phrasing and word selection better than my own; I’d concede that his use of “artfully design” and “coherently link” more accurately reflects the ideal strategist’s actions. Round One to Hoffman.
We have a hint of disagreement in the second clause. I wrote: “…to exploit some degree of control of the enemy and environment…” Hoffman responded: “…to generate, exploit and sustain a competitive advantage against an enemy…” He wrote that my original phrase was “more limited” than his selection. I don’t agree. In fact, I see the opposite as true. Hoffman has chosen an “enemy” as the sole target of the strategist’s work – I think this is too narrow. Nathan Freier has written about two kinds of threats we must gain control of in the military business – “threats of purpose” or, traditional, human, “purposeful challengers” (aka “bad guys”) – and “threats of context” like “pervasive criminality; political, economic, and security failures; and natural or human disaster.” In designing my mission statement, I took both of these into account, putting them under the banner of “enemy” (for “threats of purpose”) and “environment” (for “threats of context”). This second category is worth mention as one can envision state collapse in North Korea or even Pakistan – in which military strategists would be called upon to gain some degree of control over a volatile environment as opposed to a single, particular enemy actor. There’s an important distinction here: against a single enemy, military strategists are habitually asked to destroy a monopoly on violence (chaos from order); alternately, in an anarchic environment, military strategists are equally useful at creating a monopoly on violence (order from chaos). In sum, though I think Hoffman’s use of “generate, exploit, and sustain” is better, I’d prefer to stick with Wylie and “some degree of control of the enemy and environment.” Round Two is a split decision.
The third clause is where we differ the most. I wrote 14 words: “…to secure military objectives, desired political outcomes, and strategic narratives consistent with national interests.” Hoffman responded with only seven: “…to secure desired political effects and outcomes.” While his phrase is fairly broad, I chose to be more specific and precise about what I think constitutes strategic victory. But this seems a bit more than mere precision and word selection.
Hoffman disagreed with my inclusion of “strategic narrative” as an ultimate end. He wrote, “I would leave out strategic narrative” and that “it is not clear that the strategist must build that narrative.” Now we’re on to something. Hoffman and I disagree, substantively, on what constitutes strategic victory.
In my original essay, I wrote that we might just shorten this third clause to BHL Hart’s “a better peace” and be done with it. Who could doubt that as an ultimate purpose? As nice a little phrase as that is, with respect to Hart, it doesn’t tell the strategist much about how to spend his or her time on a given day (i.e. taking a nap might lead to “a better peace,” right? Perhaps I should test that hypothesis.). I think we ought to be more specific about strategic victory – where ought we direct our blows to build the result our country desires?
Sir Michael Howard is helpful in this regard. In his Foreign Affairs essay, “The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy” – he reminded us that Clausewitz’s trinity is comprised of “political motivation, operational activity, and social participation.” This phrasing gives us three audiences, three parts to any given war effort. Another essay of his – “When Are Wars Decisive?” – provides us three specific conditions, tied to these audiences, for “decisive” strategic victory. Howard mentions only “two requirements,” but there are, in fact, three, when one reads closely because Howard assumes battlefield success when he begins each requirement by referring to “defeated people.” Thus, his first requirement: military victory. Second, those defeated must “become reconciled to their defeat by being treated, sooner or later, as partners in operating the new international order.” This is political. And, third, he writes that “the defeated peoples must accept the fact of defeat.” This is social and tied to the story the people choose to accept about the conflict. To punctuate the point, Howard writes that reversal of this verdict can come in three ways: “military revival, skillful diplomacy, or international propaganda.” Again, success in three forms or venues – military, political, and social. I wrote about this myself recently, arguing that there are three specific places we ought to direct our efforts in seeking ultimate strategic victory:
“Modern wars are contested in three places: fought on fields of fire for victory, prosecuted by politicians for power, and argued through advocates for an accepted narrative. The military creates the monopoly of violence; politicians certify this new monopoly; and the people consecrate the monopoly on violence by choosing a particular narrative that supports the monopoly’s continuance.”
So Howard, citing Clausewitz, gives us three focus areas in seeking strategic victory that persist in contemporary war, though the balance of effort may have shifted. We live in a world awash in information. The Economist just reported that 80% of the world’s adult population will have a smartphone by 2020. We also live in a world of disaggregated strategic actors – there aren’t many places like North Korea left. These trends suggest that strategic narrative is growing in importance. So I think Hoffman’s version of The Strategist’s Mission Statement is too overbroad and misses the mark by leaving out a critical objective like the strategic narrative. Round Three to Cavanaugh (and Howard and Clausewitz).
We end this fight with “No Decision” (which better not happen next month with Mayweather-Pacquiao!). We’re half agreed, by my measure. Hoffman’s first half (20 words) + my second half (23 words) = 43 words in The Strategist’s Mission Statement, Version 2:
“To artfully design and coherently link achievable ends, allocated means, effective ways, with acceptable risks to generate, exploit, and sustain some degree of control of the enemy and environment to secure military objectives, desired political outcomes, and strategic narratives consistent with national interests.”
I do not like artfully, it implies, that strategic thinking can only be acquired through talent. While skillfully doesn’t exclude talent, it does allow science to enter the field.
And it also signifies, there is work to be done before one can reap the results.