A bridge over troubled waters

Understanding the purpose of strategy and the role of the strategist.

Strategy BridgeFor a century as deeply soaked in blood as the last, the most remarkable aspect of modern military history is how poorly states have waged their wars. Poor because despite enormous expenditure of treasure and loss of an estimated 187 million lives, very few wars resulted in an unambiguous victory on the battlefield that was parlayed into the kind of lasting political settlement for which the war had been waged. The Second World War remains the shining example of military force securing a permanent peace between belligerents, but the expression “win the war, but lose the peace” aptly describes the more usual outcome of  victories by generals on the battlefield, upon which politicians and diplomats are unable to capitalise on at the conference table.

Why do most states seem incapable of using force effectively? One explanation would be the relative decline of strategy as a tool of statecraft and war while the political environment of globalised twenty-first century nation-states have grown ponderously complex. Neither Napoleon nor Giap had to account for Al Jazeera or troops on Twitter, Admiral Nelson and Genghis Khan entered battle undisturbed by NGO activists, currency runs or Security Council resolutions. While the political context of warfare today is more complicated than even fifty years ago, our leaders are less prepared than their predecessors to navigate through conflicts strategically. Large amounts of money is spent on armaments and bureaucracy, coins are allotted to professional military education while fewer and fewer politicians come to office with military experience or a thorough grounding in defence issues. This situation creates a wide gap of understanding between civilian officials who set the policy and military officers tasked with using force to achieve the government’s political objectives or assure the nation’s security. Miserable military performance, broken policy and lost wars, from Algeria to Afghanistan, arise from this gap.

The remedy, argues Colin S. Gray is a strategy bridge. Gray has taught International Relations and educated strategists for thirty years and The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice represents a magnum opus of Gray’s thinking about “doing strategy”. An ardent Clausewitzian, who, by his own admission once boasted, “If Thucydides, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz did not say it, it probably is not worth saying!” The Strategy Bridge is a significant intellectual departure for Gray. Intended as a work of strategy and not just a book about strategy, the ideas of particular strategists or the history of strategic studies, Gray is attempting “…to make an original contribution to the understanding of strategy” and “…break the grip of Clausewitzian theory upon strategic thinkers and executors, to the degree which he grip has become unhealthy.”

Bear in mind, in Another Bloody Century: Future WarfareGray was resolutely critiquing and systematically rejecting most aspects of so-called new wars ideas with a deep skepticism rooted in orthodox Clausewitzian theory. Gray’s stance applied equally to culturally weighted explanations of war from military historians (John Keegan, Martin van Creveld), social theorists (Mary Kaldor, William Lind, John Arquilla, David Ronfeldt, Thomas Barnett) or uniformed advocates of technological dominance and transformation (VADM Arthur Cebrowski, MG Allen Batschelet). So, Gray’s effort in The Strategy Bridge to move strategic theory beyond the “giant shadow” of On War represents an important and welcome shift. To use an analogy, if Clausewitzian theory is the Catholic Church of strategic studies, the Pope just suggested that it was high time to go beyond dogma and engage in a little freethinking.

The title of The Strategy Bridge is also Gray’s operative metaphor, both for the purpose of strategy and the role of the strategist himself that represents the dialectical dynamic of war and strategy-making, the latter being a shared enterprise, save for some extreme historical outliers where strategy was vested in one man, like the regimes of Napoleon and Adolf Hitler. Strategy is the ‘bridge’ that must be built between policy determined by a national leadership and the operational and tactical behaviors of the military and other arms of national power. The strategist “mans the bridge”, orchestrating all of the elements within a master strategic concept and managing the iterative relationship.

Gray writes “The function of the military strategist, his unique raison d’etre, is to ensure that policy and the military instrument are purposefully connected… The strategist must understand the whole nature of a conflict, including war and warfare if antagonism has escalated thus far, because subject to political control, he has the duty of care over the entire competitive performance of the security community… The mission of the military strategist is to decide how the enemy is to be defeated. It is his task to invent a theory of military victory. That theory has to be expressed in and revealed in plans, which are contingent predictions of an extended kind, and must be commanded by generals to whom the strategist delegates some restricted command authority. Whether or not the strategist wishes or is able to function as a general also, must vary with historical circumstances”

Gray’s ‘strategist’ in his bridge metaphor is something of an ambiguous and variable concept. It is less a specific official than an instrumental function, permitting a fluid “changing of the guard” depending on the need to fulfill the exigencies of grand strategy, military strategy, supreme military command or the exceptionally rare moment of decisive battle where strategy might ‘fuse’ with operational command. The ‘strategist’ may not be a person at all but a committee. Gray points to the example of Eisenhower whose supreme command of the European theatre in practice often found much of the ‘strategic’ decisions in the hands of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, Churchill and Roosevelt rather than his own. What matters is not who mans the strategy bridge but that it is manned at all times and preferably manned well so that the bridge does not fall into disrepair or give way at the worst possible time.

The Strategy Bridge is subtitled “Theory for Practice” because it is intended as a serious work of theory, a framework for understanding enduring principles of strategy so that a practitioner can thoughtfully apply them in making strategies for the specific context in which they find themselves to provide correct guidance for the operational planners and tacticians who will execute it. Consequently, Gray has not written an introductory text for a novice student but an insightful book for the strategic practitioner of journeyman experience – field grade officers, senior intelligence and foreign policy analysts, academic strategists, think tank researchers and national security advisers to senior government officials – who have a store of knowledge of their own. Hence the repeated invocation of “the bridge” metaphor by Gray; his primary audience are the people “doing strategy” and their success or failure “manning the bridge” will help determine the degree to which government purpose remains connected to action or whether the whole business will go off the rails into a quagmire, as it too often does.

Summarising Gray’s ‘system’ in The Strategy Bridge is somewhat challenging as he is a lover of composing lists – at times long lists – of fundamental questions, strategic functions and levels, classic strategists, strategist roles, principles of war, dicta of general theory, problems of strategy and then explaining each point in detail. Gray’s dicta though, are the core of his “strategy bridge” and take up two large chapters of the book. Drawn from the works of Clausewitz, Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Jomini, Basil Liddell-Hart, J.C. Wylie, Edward Luttwak, Bernard Brodie and Thomas Schelling and distilled along with Gray’s own original thinking, the dicta map out Gray’s general theory of strategy.

There are some, which deal with understanding strategy itself- its nature, character and purpose while the last is about the execution of strategies along with those that deal with consequences—all actions, purposeful or not, by calculation or chance, by strategy or improvisation, will have operational and strategic effect. If a strategist is on their game, they are manning the bridge and managing the iterative process of folding strategic effects back into the adjustment of strategy in line with the efficient and effective pursuit towards the objectives of policy. If the strategist is inept or absent, the effect of events may carry tactical action far away from what politicians had hoped to achieve with their policy.

One of Gray’s important discussions in The Strategy Bridge is his clear theoretical differentiation between war and strategy and that a general theory of war, provided brilliantly by Clausewitz, is also by default a theory of peace and therefore the art of strategy spans and is applied to conditions of both war and peace and everything in-between (“warlike peace”, “phony war”). This permits integration of the means of statecraft with those of warfare in advancing the goals of national policy, at least in theory. Repeated calls by American generals and politicians for efforts in conflict zones like Iraq or Afghanistan to become “whole of government” fell far short of that ideal or fell upon deaf bureaucratic ears. This indicates how hard that kind of unified effort is to come by in practice or at least to reverse-engineer into a war that has already gone far astray from the original policy.

Gray’s final chapter in The Strategy Bridge is entitled Bandit Country and muses on the formidable difficulties faced by professional strategists in their quest to “devise, sustain and satisfactorily conclude purposeful behavior”, including not least the open contempt of senior officials who do not understand the value of strategy or (more likely) fear being held accountable for their performance, if a formal strategy is employed.

This proposition is belied by the history of those who have tried to do without strategy in anything but a short war by relying on tactical excellence, wealth or mass. From Xerxes war with the stubborn Greeks to the Wehrmacht, Imperial Japan’s endless war in China or the Soviet and American experiences in occupying Afghanistan, war done without roadmap or compass tend to end in defeat, or at least frustrated ambitions at great cost of lives. Gray insists instead that strategy is “not an illusion”; that strategic theory has real value, in educating the would-be strategist to devise strategies that are, at least “good enough” to allow commanders to create the strategic effects needed to achieve some degree of control over the course of events and work towards the objectives of policy. Strategic success for a nation facing profound and complex security challenges, if not always-elegant execution, is possible.

But first you must have a strategy bridge.

The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice

by Colin S Gray

Oxford University Press, USA (2011)