A General Overview of Strategy under the lens of SAASS XIX Readings
By Lt Col Dave ”Sugar” Lyle
We live in a world that, spiritual matters aside, can be described by three spheres or domains: the physical, the cognitive, and the moral. (JFC Fuller )
Physical: the hard matter we’re made of, including the energy in the universe we can’t see
Cognitive: dealing with the ability of both living and nonliving physical elements of the universe to sense their surroundings and react to them, based on internal models that drive adaptive behavior (Waldrop Complexity)
Moral: a human quality which ascribes meaning to occurrences in the first two domains
What keeps the word from sliding into a dark, uniformly cold mass of static objects (Second Law of Thermodynamics - entropy – see Bousquet’s Scientific Way of War or Boyd) is the processes of adaptation and evolution, which is driven by a combination of fitness, adaptive capacity, and luck. Fitness describes the physical and adaptive characteristics that combine to form a relative ability of a certain object, organism, or system to survive at a specific point in time and place in the universe. Because the universe is a constantly changing, open system comprised of interdependent elements (Jervis System Effects), fitness, or advantage for successful adaptation, is constantly changing as well. At times, different elements may compliment each other’s ability to adapt to these changes, and at other times they compete. In some cases, they may compete at one level, but cooperate at another higher levels that better helps each element to compete. In human terms, how one balances competing interests at different levels cooperation and competition is called politics (Sugar’s definition).
While some things often manage to survive by sheer luck and unique circumstances (natural selection - Darwin), most need to adapt to maintain the fitness to survive (Boyd OODA). The most basic building blocks for adaptation, whether one is talking about single cell organism or nation states, are the following: it has to have some kind of internally coded model or blueprint that directs a response to external stimuli, it has to have the ability to sense feedback from the external environment, and it has to have an ability to change its behavior in response to those stimuli. (Dolman Pure Strategy Chapter 7) This is adaptation. More advanced adaptors also have the ability to evaluate and change their internal model of the outside world, correct it for errors based on observed differences between the model and the environment, and then can change either its behaviors or characteristics to better improve fitness for survival. This is evolution.
So what does all of this have to do with strategy? Humans can both adapt and evolve – we have both subconscious models of the world that allow us to adapt (DNA, reflex, immune responses) and conscious ones that we express with mathematical equations, literal descriptions, metaphors, etc. We simultaneously compete and cooperate, even among enemies (Walzer Just and Unjust Wars, Gilpin Global Political Economy), and form organizations and societies to create a greater productivity and efficiency than we could ever create individually (Olsen - The Logic of Collective Action), and any book on economics. When we adapt as groups, we need an ability to create a common model for adaptation that allows us to compete and cooperate collectively. To do this, we develop paradigms (Kuhn – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), regimes (Alexrod – The Evolution of Cooperation) Metaphors (Morgan – Images of Organizations, Khong Analogies at War), grand narratives (Carr The Twenty Years Crisis, Smith and Marx, Does Technology Drive History?), and perhaps most importantly, theories that attempt to explain how all of this stuff works together, or at the very least how pieces of the world system works (Waldrop Complexity'',' Kuhn, Winton’s definition). When we get sufficient buy-in for a group of ideas, organizations can be formed around them, whether it be a region, a political party, a trade or labor union, an international organization, etc . Ultimately, when there is sufficient common vision, bureaucracies form based on those agreed images of organization and collective action, providing the mechanism for multiple simultaneous levels of competition and cooperation (Allison and Zelikow Essence of Decision). These organizations also continue to adapt, but may be hampered by groupthink, which robs the organization of the variety needed for successful long term adaptation to uncertain threats (Janis Groupthink). Sharing ideas between organizations creates more variety and adaptive capability, it’s this principle that undergirds open market capitalism, creating wealth not only by creating more money, but by creating a greater diversity of goods to spend your money on. But open markets are not in the interest of all – some groups hold power, but the way they hold power may not lend itself to an open economy of ideas or goods (North Korea comes to mind). This leads back to JFC Fuller’s three domains…
All humans simultaneously exist in the physical, cognitive, and moral realms, but as Maslow suggests, there is a precedence to our emphasis – if we’re not secure in the physical domain, the cognitive domain concentrates on that, and moral issues tend to go out the window until physical survival is secure (Walzer Just and Unjust Wars, Thucydides concept of Fear, Honor, and Interest). When persuasion in the moral and cognitive domains is insufficient to achieve the goals of individuals and groups, physical force is the ultima ratio of politics, and with physical suppression, you can take those with opposing views out of competition in the moral realm, and with enough force, you take them out of the cognitive and physical ones as well (Walz, Theory of International Politics'').' But force is not just the closing argument; it can serve in the opening argument as well. The threat of continued force is more important in shaping future outcomes with those who are still living than are the results of the past use of force against those who have already been eliminated (Shelling Arms and Influence). This is the foundation of deterrence.
But power and physical force is not just defined by the military instrument – groups compete on multiple levels, and successful adaptation and completion is driven not just by the capacity to attack or defend with physical force, but also by the ability of a group to sustain the economy that enables action in the physical realm (Brauer and van Tuyll, Castles, Battles and Bombs: How Economics Explains Military History). Powerful collective images of honor and interest can also drive societies to compete in the most extreme form, war, regardless of economic calculations of costs and benefits, because power is defined by ideas as well as by economic power and physical capacity to coerce or dominate an opponent (Horne the Price of Glory'').' But ultimately, even if it is not sustainable in the long term, physical force has the most dramatic effect in the short term on a society’s ability to adapt in a competitive international environment unless there are significant other factors that protect it (like geography and position). If one fails at war in the short term, there may be no long term (Von Moltke). This is why we study war and military strategy, albeit within the context of grand strategy that should help us to guard against ultimately Pyrrhic short term victories (i.e. Pearl Harbor and the German Blitzkrieg).
War, just like any form of competition, is a completion between adaptive systems, as Clausewitz describes as the moral and physical struggle between opponents (Clausewitz On War). According to Clausewitz, successful competition in war requires that you successfully adapt yourself to both the environment and your opponent in order to preserve both your capability and will to resist, while degrading the same in your opponent until one or both is sufficiently low enough that you can impose your will upon them. In trying to do this, the commander must have an innate feel for what can be controlled and what can’t. What can be controlled is considered by JFC Fuller to comprise the Science of War, and prescriptive theorists like Jomini , JFC Fuller, and Mahan sought to provide general concepts like maxims and principles of war that could be used by even mediocre strategists to ensure high probabilities for success in the more predictable, linear aspects of war. Theorists like Sun Tzu emphasized that while this was important, what was more important was to be able to also use things you can’t control to your advantage, and position yourself and the enemy to make those uncontrollable elements of the environment act in your favor (Sun Tzu the Art of War, Julien A Treatise on Efficacy).
The need to dislocate the adaptation of your foe was also a key concept proposed by Sun Tzu, and further developed by Tuhkachevskii (Deep Battle), Liddell Hart (the indirect approach), JFC Fuller (Psycho-tactical plan), John Warden (Five Rings, EBO) John Boyd (the real OODA loop, which is not just a decision loop but an adaptation loop as well), Cebrowski (Network Centric Warfare), and Naveh (Systemic Operational Design, or SOD). Most of these concepts focused on disrupting the enemy in the cognitive domain, but the recent backlashes against EBO, NCW, and SOD recognizes that methodologies that disrupt the capacity of an enemy to resist in the cognitive domain may do little to affect their will to resist in the moral domain, as was the case in the irregular warfare scenarios of Post 2003 Iraq (Ricks the Gamble) and Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 (Arkin Devining Victory). The main failings of these methodologies was not that they tried to look at the enemy as a system, it was that they didn’t draw their artificial boundaries of the system large enough (all systems are defined by us), and didn’t account for the nonlinear and moral elements sufficiently in designing defeat mechanisms. Moden Design attempts to try to correct this deficiency by bringing the insights of Wicked Problems (Rittel and Weber) and Complex Systems Theories (Waldrop Complexity, Jervis System Effects, Bousquet Scientific War of War, Lawson How Designers Think', 1997’s MCWP Warfighting)) to the planning processes of warfare (FM 5-0 Chapter on Design, Operational Design chapter of FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. This continually dawning understanding that war cannot achieve political outcomes separated from other elements of national power (Gilpin's War & Change in World Politics) has also brought political and military relations into focus.
If the view of Clausewitz (war is the continuation of politics by other means) has finally trumped that of Von Moltke (strategy is independent of policy), it has also magnified the dilemma that the generals expected to win wars by social contract (Huntington The Soldier and the State) cannot - and arguably should not (Cohen Supreme Command)- control all of the instruments that are required for victory. The unavoidable intersection of the military and politicians that has emerged with the growth of undustrialized warfare has also strained the traditional power sharing arrangements between civilian and military leaders (outlined in the Constitution for the US, Stone War and Liberty',' Nielsen and Snyder American Civil-Military Relations), often requiring military leaders to be a strategist of political bureaucracies as well as military bureaucracies in order to properly serve their civilian masters. (Halperin and Clapp Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy, Sorenson The Process and Politics of Defense Acquisition, Hasik Arms and Innovation, Rosen Winning the Next War). The inseparability of economics from politics and war, and its role in promoting both stability and change (Gilpin War and Change in World Politics), has also made war too important to leave to the generals”, as Clemenceau famously quipped.
Current understandings of the complex nature of warfare also highlight the fact that the term victory itself is often a poorly defined bumper sticker used for political purposes that seldom relates to realistic and feasible desired outcomes (Martel Victory in War, Goldstein Lessons in Disaster). Additionally, the demand to understand the knowable elements of human systems has only increased the demand for intelligence – in addition to traditional intelligence on enemy threat systems and physical infrastructure, demands for cultural intelligence have only increased, especially given the demands of irregular warfare. (Betts Enemies of Intelligence).
The next advance in strategy will involve finding ways to see the interrelated system as a whole, and unify disparate elements of national power to work in concert as much as possible, despite the constitutionally created tensions that were put in place to put too much power in any one set of hands (in the US, at least). The increased realization that “you can never do just one thing” in a complex world system (Waldrop Complexity, Jervis System Effects) means that the days of politicians handing war to the generals is over, unless the general acts as a Roman proconsul assuming political roles as well, as some have argued COCOMs have in recent years. Military strategists cannot look at war only as contests between two military forces, but must look at the full range of short term and long term national interests that may be affected by war. In many cases, these interests may actually be conflicting between the long and short term, and also between external and internal interests, as in the case of a long term cumulative strategy (JC Wylie, Military Strategy) that does not play well to the current civilian leadership’s base of support in short term elections.
Most military efforts to seek decisive victory have focused on strategic paralysis of enemy military forces and the economies that support them (Sun Tzu, JFC Fuller, Douhet, Mitchell, Warden, ACTS, EBO, NCW), and this will continue to be a consideration in achieving tactical successes. But unless one totally eliminates the opponent, tactical victory is only the entering argument for convincing the remaining enemy to agree to compromise solutions that will ultimately lead to conflict termination (Clausewitz, Ikle All Wars Must End, why Sun Tzu advocated winning without fighting) . These compromise solutions must address the full range of human needs, including economic, cultural, and religious considerations, and so on. Short of these compromises, war will continue on some level, and both active violence and restrained deterrence will continue to play a role in the ongoing political negotiation that is war.