Repairing America’s Strategy Bridge

I don’t know why others want to be part of War on the Rocks, but my reasons relate to the last decade of war and our country’s strategic performance.  I don’t have a high opinion of our country’s ability to think strategically and intelligently about war.  We have many wonderful people working the problem, many of them friends and mentors, but the last decade and the costs we have incurred leave little doubt that we need to step back and consider the results.  Hence, the publication’s name, War on the Rocks, has strong appeal to me as I don’t think we have a realistic understanding about what war and human conflict really is. I would emphatically assert that we have few clues about how to guide our way into and out of modern conflict, and little appreciation for what constitutes a real strategy.  Thus, we are on the rocks until we come to a better collective understanding about human affairs and the enduring realities of war.

America’s last decade of conflict has stimulated a number of scathing critiques about American strategic competence.  Some have argued that there is a black hole where U.S. strategy should reside.  This black hole represents the gap or low level of connectivity between desired political objectives and the application of our instruments of national power.  The so-called “American Way of War” consistently struggles to coherently link ends, ways and means.

The impression that U.S. strategic competence is waning is predicated upon a series of perceived disasters in current conflicts.  Over the last generation, a series of conflicts have demonstrated exquisite military planning and technological prowess, but limitations in translating military effects into desired political outcomes: Panama, Desert Storm, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is hard to disagree with those who conclude that America’s  strategy establishment  is, in the words of Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts,  “increasingly hard-pressed to choose realistic goals or craft strategies likely to achieve our objectives at affordable costs in the face of various constraints….”  Ironically, this lost capacity can be traced to America’s success – specifically, its lofty position of global primacy and its incomparable resources.  Yet, resources are no longer infinite.   And what was just very recently considered a Pax Americana buttressed by American hyperpower is in relative decline.

At the end of the day, strategy is the critical bridge between the often ephemeral aims of policy and the gritty reality of military action.  That translation of objectives-to-action requires a guiding logic that only strategy can provide.  Without a strategy worthy of the name, the cash transaction of battle has little purpose and an even lower chance of translating that effort into desirable ends at an exchange rate that is acceptable.  This is the singular duty of the strategist.

Some of our failings come from the complexity of producing a strategy in a multi-polar world.  Other failings may come from the difficulties inherent to generating consensus in a fractious political system that our Founding Fathers designed to impede fast solutions.  Some of our failings come from a poor appreciation for the hard work involved in crafting and sustaining a real strategy.  By real I mean an actionable and resourced plan that is designed to obtain desired political objectives.  I do not mean glossy documents with numerous targets and long lists of aspirations and rhetoric.

Here, Colin Gray’s simple “Strategy Bridge” metaphor is valuable.  He argues that the strategist bridges the policy world on one embankment, and the military world of action on the other.  The strategy bridge is not just about discourse or the exchange of ideas. It is a connection of institutions and their cultures.  In theory, one embankment represents the policy community, largely comprised of very senior civilians.  Far on the other bank are the operational and tactical units that provide the action component of strategy.  These two communities come from their different worlds, which are filtered by the orientation, culture, education, and the professional lexicon of each community.  It is these different lenses or cultures that contribute frequently to dysfunction at the strategic level and make the strategist’s job as complicated as it is.

A clash of cultures can occur and history suggests that it often does.  However, more often, by acts of omission, within American policy and strategic circles, the clash is muted or incomplete.  The military community in the United States has its own unique military culture, a subcomponent of its national strategic culture.  Three principal cultural attributes of the American military characterize its world view and professional frame of reference.

Autonomy.   One of the unique element of the military is the profession’s mastery of the employment of military force and its desire to retain control or autonomy over its professional sphere.  Taken too far, this sense of ownership of a preserve can isolate the military officer corps by focusing inward on the most technical elements of its professional domain, detached from domestic political influence or from an understanding of the social/political/economic context in which military power is being applied.

Apolitical.  Another aspect of the U.S. military’s DNA is its apolitical character.  This too stems from Samuel Huntington’s normative code.  The U.S. military ethic seeks to serve society and swears allegiance not to its civilian leadership but to the state’s Constitution.  The military serves policy, but is not part of the policy making process per se.  It advises on critical matters of force development, policy choices, risk assessments, and decisions regarding the use of force.  It is to be heard in policy circles, a voice but not a vote.  Coupled with Huntington’s professional creed, this produces a mindset that divorces politics from thinking and decisions about war, a profoundly anti-Clausewitzian concept.  This apolitical character has been stretched over the years, and when military officers cross the line (MacArthur, Fallon, McChrystal), a public rebuke or forced dismissal can occur.

Absolutist.  Morris Janowitz once identified two prototypes of American military officer:  pragmatists and the absolutists.  The former accepted the notion that contingencies and policy may dictate the employment of military force for specific and limited aims and purposes short of decisive victory.  The absolutist strain, represented by Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, objects to constraints and embraces the von Moltkean conception of force as a last resort after other means have failed.   Macarthur’s notion that “War’s very objective is victory not prolonged indecision” is representative of this strain.  This same notion animates the Powell Doctrine’s call for overwhelming and decisive force in a short time span, and is derived from his Vietnam-era generation.  We have Army officers today who are repeating history by echoing the arguments of MacArthur, Colonel Harry Summers, and even Colin Powell.

These characteristics generate a bit of tension and run afoul of our conception of strategy as pronounced by Carl von Clausewitz.  One British professional said of his American “cousins” that “those who have accepted that they serve the state have not necessarily bought into the complementary idea that the statesman is the master.”  Moreover, the intense inward looking focus on the art and science of the profession separates it from the political forces that give it meaning and guide its application in war.  Not surprisingly, the end result is a professional orientation that is unconstrained once employed but devoid of the essence of Clausewitz’s most important conception of war as an extension of politics.  The result is a profession that is supreme in its technical skills, but strategically autistic.

This has produced not an American Way of War, but a Way of Battles that produces disappointment on a regular basis in converting military actions and success into desired strategic effects.  The U.S. military’s narrow fixation with the fighting function of warfare substitutes for a deeper and comprehensive grasp of what war is truly all about.  Others bemoaned the U.S. military’s fascination with technological panaceas for complex challenges.  The larger problem however, despite the U.S. military’s alleged embrace of Clausewitz, is that we too often fail to appreciate his fundamental conclusion that force is applied to serve policy, which directly influences either the conduct or ending of a war. General Tommy Frank’s comments to his policy counterpart on the eve of the Iraq invasion—“You pay attention to the day after, I’ll pay attention to the day of” was sadly representative of the American Way of War.

The other side of the bridge, defended by the civilian policy maker, is also responsible for the sometimes dysfunctional translation of policy aims into successful strategic behavior.   That community too often views its role in policy as the definer of only the ends of the End/Ways/Means logic of strategy.  This characteristic is often represented by intense debates in policy making circles about goals and objectives, but too little debate about the way in which these ends are to be obtained and the inherent logic behind which the implementing strategy is based.  This community is not interested in challenging assumptions, or getting into the weeds for tradeoffs and priorities among means or assets.

The essence of strategy requires a lot more than defining policy aims or even clear military objectives.  A policy community that focuses entirely on Aims, makes a habit of unchallenged Assumptions, and acts as if Assets were endless, is not contributing its share towards the crucial discourse and occasionally volatile interaction that must occur at the middle of the bridge.  In fact, it isabdicating its role for true policy and strategy.

The gap in our metaphorical bridge may lie at either end from a flawed policy expecting too much, or in flaws in a military instrument incapable of generating the tactical effects that are desired.  The strategist pulls these pieces into a coherent and integrated whole and gives meaning to the effort and the sacrifice. The power of the State must be harnessed to a logic that only strategy can provide.

There is much discussion these days about fixing America’s strategic thinking deficiencies.  Some commentators focus on structural solutions—fixing the National Security Council, or standing up new cells.  Some colleagues of mine have argued for a Chief Strategy Officer (I thought the President had that responsibility).  No doubt, process and structure are important in the development and vetting of both good strategy and policy.  But I would argue that the solution will require three inter-related components, Structure, Process, and Education, which will occupy many of my future contributions to War on the Rocks.  Curiously, while there is broad recognition of the problem, there is too little debate on solutions. I am hoping that this is where War on the Rocks can come in.



For America to retain its place on the world’s stage, it will have to change its strategic mindset and machinery.  It should work hard at understanding the role of honor, fear, and interest in the world.   We must have an historical appreciation for the application of power in order to preserve peace.   Our country should dispel the illusion that peace is self-enforcing and that war some rare aberration.  We must embrace the difficult art of strategy, and the crafting of a compelling and coherent logic that obtains desired ends, with ways and means that are linked in time and space.

Strategy may be difficult, but is not impossible.  Strategy, both the process and the product, are essential to filling in the black hole I describe above.  Strategy must be more than mere fluff. It cannot be founded upon an inadequate diagnosis or a mere list of goals.  The bridge must be the conduit for the two-way traffic that animates action and provides a continual feedback between ends, ways and mean.  It is not an illusion or an exercise in futility – it is essential for rationalizing the purpose, costs and means of war.

Too often there is a gap in the bridge, which has been covered by greater effort and resources.  But in a world in which relative power levels are narrowing and means are diluted, America’s historical black hole, a bifurcation between policy and operations, must be closed.  Given that our country expects great sacrifices from those toiling at the tactical level, much more can and should be expected at the summit.  It is my expectation that War on the Rocks will help fill in the black hole.  That is my charge to Ryan Evans and everyone here!


Frank Hoffman is a retired Marine and Washington DC-based national security analyst, who also serves as a contributing editor at War on the Rocks.



Photo Credit: A bridge in Binh Phuoc province, Vietnam by Egui.