Why is America Tactically Terrific but Strategically Slipshod?


Our men and women in uniform have made enormous sacrifices implementing the policies developed at the highest levels of our government. But those policies and the strategies to implement them have too often not measured up.

How can we do as well on the strategic level as our military units do on the tactical level? This is a puzzle I have always wondered about since I was a lieutenant on my first Vietnam tour and experienced consistent strategic failures through the several desert wars. How come the finest fighting force on the planet seems to be strategically bereft? In retrospect, we are always tactically overwhelming and strategically underwhelming.

The question was most recently forced on me by Sean Naylor’s detailed descriptions of the often brilliant performance of our special operations forces in Relentless Strike. In a sense, tactics are straightforward — and our military has done tactics well, whether in taking down the Taliban, ousting Saddam, killing Osama bin Laden, or taking out any number of other high-level terrorists. By contrast, getting the overarching political–military strategy right seems to have been much harder.   Strategy requires hard thinking at the highest levels and is a serious “team sport,” encompassing not just the military, but multiple other departments and agencies, as well as, in many cases, partner and host nations. There’s nothing easy about that, and the challenges have been evident in a number of cases where significant initial successes by our military and partner nation forces have not been seen through.

Our record in the strategic arena since Korea has been spotty. From the Vietnam War to the present day, we have amassed a mixed record of results with some successes, some failures, and plenty that fall somewhere between those two categories. The cost in lives has been high. We should be able to do better.

Grenada and Panama were clear military and political successes. They were short, sharp, and definitive. The same, generally, was true of Operation Desert Storm. Bosnia and Kosovo were arguably political successes after some fits and starts, and each required significant military action, albeit with no serious casualties, despite an extensive air campaign for Kosovo. Operation Iraqi Freedom started out as a stunning success, evolved into a desperate situation, was dramatically retrieved by the “surge” and subsequent operations, and then went into a death spiral after the departure of U.S. combat forces in late 2011. Afghanistan was another dramatic success at the outset. However, it went slowly but steadily downhill. In Iraq, it was temporarily retrieved by the surge, but less successfully in Afghanistan where things are now shaky after the significant drawdown of U.S. and coalition forces. The campaign against al Qaeda’s senior leaders has seen considerable achievements. And, meanwhile, smaller overt and covert operations in Central and South America, the Philippines, and the Middle East (Yemen, Somalia, Libya, etc.) have also seen frequent tactical achievements, but a mix in outcomes.

In a number of cases, our inadequate strategic concepts and campaigns have failed to capitalize on initial tactical successes. To be sure, there are numerous factors seemingly beyond our control at the strategic level: less than ideal host nation leaders and partners (think Afghan President Karzai, Iraqi PM Maliki, and various South Vietnamese leaders, among others), resilient enemies that enjoy sanctuaries outside the countries in which we are allowed to operate (e.g., the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network), and other factors at the strategic level that make some endeavors just plain hard. Those realities notwithstanding, we owe those carrying out these campaigns better thought at the strategic level than has often been the case.

So, why can’t we get it right more consistently? What has gone wrong between day one and day last? Was there not a viable strategy at the national level? Understandably, the strategic level is much more complex than the tactical level, at least against the enemies we’ve tended to fight, though many have, indeed, been very tough, determined, and adaptive. To be sure, conditions and issues do change as situations evolve, and strategies require comprehensive activities that involve the so-called “whole of government” — and, indeed, the whole of other governments, too. Naylor’s book underscores our ability to achieve tactical successes – indeed, sometimes apparent but dubious strategic successes (like the killings of Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and Anwar al Alawki). And the same often has been true of our general-purpose forces such as during the fight to Baghdad, the takedown of the Taliban, and so on. But our record at the strategic level has not equaled that at the tactical level.

There is plenty of blame to go around, especially among civilian leaders who have committed our nation to poor strategies dictated by misguided policies. This is not intended to give our senior flag officers a pass, however. They, better than their civilian counterparts, understand the truths of combat and the need for adequate strategies. In too many cases, we have attacked with impressive skill and achieved initial success. Then the bad guys fall back, watch, study, re-organize under our noses, and come at us in unconventional ways. And the blame has to rest at the feet of some of those in uniform who commanded those endeavors, in addition to the corridors of civilian power in Washington.

In some cases, it appears that commanders either bought into or were “troop led” to accept intelligence analysis that did not bear out as fact. In others, commanders clung too long to strategies that clearly were not achieving the intended outcome. The greatest example of the latter was the extended period of a failed conventional force application before Gen. David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency approach was undertaken with transitory success.

Since the beginning of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, both our intervention in Libya and our non-intervention after declaring redlines in Syria offer still more concerning commentary on our strategic calculus. In Libya, we were willing to bomb but not to invade, begetting civil war in the wake of operational success. Still worse, in Syria, expansive declaratory policy backed by no action at all has bred a catastrophic civil war, a humanitarian disaster, and a country in free fall, spewing instability, refugees, and extremism over the entire region and beyond.

Of course, outcomes are never guaranteed in war, and the day-to-day conduct of combat is subject to “friction” of all kinds. However, the fact that our tactical ability has yielded only spotty strategic outcomes since the Korean conflict ended more than 60 years ago indicates a dire need for a better grasp of strategy and the utility of armed force from our uniformed and civilian leaders. Both our warfighters and a war-weary public deserve better than more tactics without strategy — what Sun Tzu called “the noise before defeat.”

Quality “strategy” is indeed hard, requiring a rigorous, clear-eyed interagency appraisal of reality on the ground and a hard-nosed determination of the ends, ways, and means that will be the foundation of the ultimate strategy. And too often, our efforts in such endeavors just have not measured up. We tend to focus at high levels too much on tactics and operations and not enough on the hard work required to develop the whole of government strategic concepts and plans and to then oversee the execution of those plans. We ought to be able to do better.

Those at home in the United States have had the privilege of distancing ourselves from the realities of war in recent decades. 9/11 was the only significant introduction into the reality of war that we have seen up close and personal within our shores and with engaged non-combatants. Beyond that, war has been something in which others engage.

In that regard, it is good that our national leadership resides within sight of Arlington Cemetery, the wall of the names of those killed in Vietnam, and other memorials to those who have fought and died in our nation’s wars. These reminders of the cost of war should be a constant reminder of the imperative of getting not just the tactics and operations right, but also getting the strategies right. Yes, strategy ranks with the hardest of tasks for our national leadership, but we clearly owe more than we have provided to those who ultimately ruck up and turn policy and strategy into reality on the ground.


Col. (Ret) Keith Nightingale commanded four rifle companies, three Airborne and Ranger Battalions and two brigades. He was a member of the Iran Rescue Task Force and a founding cadre member of the 1-75th Rangers. He had two tours in Vietnam, was an assault force commander in Grenada and had several deployments to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He presently acts as a consultant to several Fortune 500 companies on SOF-related issues.


Photo credit: U.S Army