CSI: Pentagon — Who Killed American Strategy?

October 12, 2015

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Who killed American strategy? Discussion about American security and defense today often resembles TV shows like Crime Scene Investigation and its numerous spinoffs. There’s a dead body, a list of suspects, and a convoluted plotline that somehow has to be resolved in one hour of screen time and commercial breaks. Like detectives on CSI, defense writers are at the scene of the proverbial crime, collecting evidence and speculating about the culprit. The dead body belongs to American strategy, horrifically murdered by an unknown assailant. Who — or what — is responsible?

The shocking twist on tonight’s episode of CSI: Pentagon is that we — the defense analytical community — killed American strategy. While American strategy certainly lived a troubled life and the list of “usual suspects” is fairly long, it was nonetheless a victim of our own unrealistic expectations and inability to deal with the messy reality of what strategy is and what it can do. Whoever killed strategy, our inability to make choices and recognize tradeoffs surely made us an accessory to the crime. And unless we come to grips with the inherent flaws, difficulties, and problems of making strategy, the killer in this crime — our adherence to a romantic, unrealistic, and empirically dubious view of strategy — will surely claim more victims.

American strategy’s troubled life

TV crime procedurals often begin with the premise that the victim had a perfect life, only to reveal later on that the victim is hiding sordid secrets that figure into the circumstances leading up to the murder. For example, the victim had a drug addiction or was behind on paying a debt to a local mobster. Sometimes the victim led a double life; countless murder mysteries often reveal that the victim was cheating on his wife and thus was being blackmailed by a prostitute or mistress. Of course, these failings and imperfections do not necessarily explain who killed the victim, but they often yield valuable clues.

Certainly American strategy had no shortage of admirers. Every government agency in DC and public policy think tank attaches the word “strategy” or “strategic” to what it does, and countless op-eds are penned saying that we need strategy. There are numerous civilian and military educational institutions where it is taught or referenced as a core subject. American strategy’s respectability and accomplishments, however, was an elaborate façade that concealed serious underlying problems.

Even its friends were unaware of its history of failures, such as its haphazard management of low-intensity conflicts and frequently flawed attempts to measure its adversaries’ military capabilities. A psychologist examining the victim also noted that the victim suffered from a number of psychological problems and issues, such as a tendency to mirror-image its opponents and commit to losing battles out of an emotional concern for its reputation and the blood and treasure it had already committed to the fight. Others familiar with the victim’s life observed that American strategy had an unhealthy obsession with technology and a tendency to conflate technology with the political aims that ought to have guided its use. Finally, American strategy has always been indifferent to the local politics and institutions of the foreigners that it interacts with, despite the critical nature of such forces for success and failure in its wars.

But this only scratches the surface of the problems that plagued American strategy during its tragic life. Understanding American strategy isn’t just a matter of understanding the military and its tactics and techniques. To truly understand American strategy one also needs to understand the political elites who helped make it and their incentives, tendencies, and motivations. This shady crowd was motivated largely by their own self-interest, and had always been in some shape or form. Why did American strategy associate with such a dangerous and unreliable crowd? Couldn’t it just put politics aside and focus on achieving the national interest? Unfortunately, one cannot have strategy without politics.

A Prussian general familiar with the victim’s life observed that war is always the outgrowth of politics. While American strategy’s friends believed that it made decisions based purely on what would further the national interest, historians familiar with the victim argue that the victim’s decision-making had always been influenced by domestic politics and other related factors. Politics pervades strategy and national security and cannot be avoided. There will be politics: the tortured bureaucratic politics that prevents military services from achieving common aims; the politics of civil-military relations and the direction of strategy; the convoluted domestic politics surrounding the use of military force; and the deadly politics of local war zones and the international system as a whole.

Both ideological differences and the struggle for power and influence among politicians complicated strategy because politicians’ interests and strategic goals did not always match up perfectly. Indeed, sometimes strategy was little more than the result of an internal struggle for power, competition among policy elites, an effort to appease an influential domestic interest group, or a shaky compromise between different bureaucratic factions. Finally, politicians avoid hard defense choices when they would be politically unpopular (such as the financing of America’s wars), fix intelligence when the results of spycraft are politically inconvenient, consistently disregard the warnings of academic researchers, intelligence and military specialists, and often lie routinely to the American people about basic facts of war and peace.

How we killed American strategy

There are certainly many suspects in American strategy’s murder, and Joshua Foust does a decent job of listing who and what falls into the list of usual suspects. But the shocking plot twist in tonight’s episode of CSI: Pentagon is that we — the community of people that talk, debate, write about, and work in the making of strategy — were nonetheless accessories to the crime. How? We failed at the most critical task of all — understanding the nature of the problem and proposing solutions. Without a realistic idea of what to expect out of strategy, it is difficult if not impossible to diagnose problems and suggest improvements and alternatives.

It was expected that American strategy could be formulated through rational bureaucratic planning, with all needs and problems anticipated upfront, competing goals and behaviors de-conflicted, and structural ambiguities resolved. American strategy’s cousins in the business world had long since abandoned such expectations, but American strategy was unfortunately stuck with the burden of unrealistic expectations despite the fact that it had little chance of ever living up to them. At best, American strategy could never fully reconcile desired ends, ways, and means in the manner that many believed and expected it could. At best, it could achieve a “good enough” level of coherence in how it translated political aims into the use of military power. At worst, the very assumption that making good strategy is possible is in doubt.

Instead of grappling with the structural uncertainties as to whether or not such high standards could ever be met, we were content to wallow in tired clichés and vague platitudes. We called for “grand” strategy without understanding how difficult and messy it was for a superpower with global commitments to make anything approximating it. Because of our unrealistic expectations about how American strategy ought to work, we had no way of dealing with the imperfect and often highly messy way it is made in real life. We expected a mythical “master strategist” to solve all of our problems, and then reacted with shock and distress when no such individual materialized to fix our strategic woes. We said that America “doesn’t have a strategy” even if it actually did (a bad one, admittedly) because the messy real-world process of producing it did not match our beliefs about how strategy ought to be made.

Finally, we compounded the problem by ridiculing the very people — political scientists — who specialized in the politics surrounding strategy, calling their work overly arcane and irrelevant to policy out of a silly dislike of their often highly quantitative methods and specialized research. Much of the mystery surrounding why the U.S. government has such difficulty making strategy is a mundane matter to the political scientist. However, not only has it been fashionable to ignore such matters in declaring what they do irrelevant, analysts also more or less ignored research concerning even the most basic policies and tools relevant to defense and national security. In short, we made an unrealistic fetish out of how strategy is made; and on top of that, we deliberately chose to ignore information that might have disabused us of such fantastical notions.


American strategy lived a troubled life, and there are certainly many people that a detective could plausibly suspect as having a hand in its murder. However, it was not really any of the usual suspects that killed American strategy. We — the community that analyzes and formulates it — did. We killed American strategy because we simply weren’t willing to deal with the intellectual challenge of strategy as it really is, not what we wanted it to be. Unless we come to grips with the flaws, risks, and dangers inevitable in the very expectation that we can use violence to accomplish political objectives, we will be stuck forever watching re-runs of this particular episode. Can we learn from our mistakes and do better? Unfortunately, that’s the cliffhanger we’ll have to wait until the next episode to find out.


Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a columnist at War on the Rocks. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.


Photo credit: Rudi Riet (adapted by WOTR)

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6 thoughts on “CSI: Pentagon — Who Killed American Strategy?

  1. To write that “American strategy” has been “killed” is to put forward the idea it was ever alive in the first place. You can’t kill something that was stillborn at the start.

    In general, the internal governance of the US has in itself always been such a highly profitable enterprise that our governing elites have always kept their focus on it, only paying as much attention as is minimally needed to overseas matters. Even then, that focus is still filtered through the additional lens of: how can we handle this such that our political faction best gets through the next election cycle (rather than how can we handle this so as to best optimize the long-term strategic outcome)?

    That priority of focus will not change unless an existential crisis threatens the US. Therefore, don’t waste time lamenting the death of something that never was. Instead, all you policy wonks in DC need to add to the top of the list of strategy’s principles the filtering lens of electoral politics.

    That additional lens will greatly decrease the range of strategies you can recommend; however, it will also circumscribe for you what is realistically possible within the normal bounds of our system.

    1. I generally agree, but I think that that there is a common assumption (you need only read some of the articles that pop up on RealClearDefense’s aggregator) that strategy is “dead.” Hence the point of this article was to extrapolate from that assumption in the vein of a humorous fictional murder mystery. If we grant the assumption that it’s “dead,” who killed it?

  2. Losses
    In bombers named for girls, we burned
    The cities we had learned about in school —
    Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
    The people we had killed and never seen.
    When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
    When we died they said , ‘Our casualties were low.’

    By: Randall Jarrell

    Strategy is not an end in itself but a means to a political goal or political end-state. The problem is that the US still has not figured out what is its place and role in a multi-polar world. Once that question is answered, strategy will follow.

    In war as in politics results count. Clausewitz states that strategy cannot be reduced to examining only material factors as it cannot exist outside the moral realm. Contrary to the beliefs of some operations analysts [number crunchers] and academic theorists [who usually have no military experience other than reading books] it cannot just be reduced to “a few mathematical formulas of equilibrium and superiority, of time and space, limited by a few angles and lines.” (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 178)

    By way of comparison, NSC-68 provided the rationale for all of our strategic initiatives during the Cold War.

    The bottom line is this: However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results. Winston Churchill

    1. Hmm, I think that there’s actually much more consensus about that than you think.


      FWIW, Gray is likely right that there are a certain set of political constraints, conscious and unconscious conditions, and framing effects that make American political elites with some influence fairly uniform in their long-term preferences. And Gray, as a Cold Warrior that worked for multiple administrations, is in a good place to know.

      Plot the policies of American presidents on a line. I think you will find much more continuity than change.

  3. In the context of this article, strategy can be defined as a method to solve a social phenomenon that reveals itself as a security issue.

    In general, political scientists tend to think that most social phenomena are complex. For many reasons, I suspect that they ought to be simple.

    I have explained here the gist of this idea, with radical Islam as an example: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/243487-physics-can-help-us-understand-radical-islam.

    When a phenomenon is deemed complex it is very difficult to develop a coherent strategy to deal with it.

    If in reality when a phenomenon is simple, coming up with a strategy to deal with it shouldn’t be hard at all.

    Instead of worry about strategy, in my humble opinion, the issue should be simplicity vs. complexity – which one describes certain class of security issues.

    Let me launch the first salvo by saying that radical Islam is a simple phenomenon and here’s a coherent strategy to counter it: http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/homeland-security/247137-radical-clerics-can-be-sidelined.

  4. Absolutely love the analogy. Beautifully written. Might have included reference to Casablanca in relation to “shock and distress” (gambling at Rick’s).

    But here’s a though for you. Is the absence of a “rationale” or “integrated” strategy really necessary? Isn’t the absence of an agreed-upon strategy lead to a defacto strategy? Maybe one not fully integrated amongst itself (internally inconsistent)?

    Additionally, while the article references the cousin, it doesn’t give any credence that international business strategies often co-opt national strategies. Example, can the U.S. (and its get-in-their-face, 600-ship navy) really claim credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union? Or was it really the rising economies and growth of wealth that finally spilled over, collapsing the existing political (communist) governance model? What I call the “television and Levi’s” effect. They saw what we had, wanted it, their government couldn’t provide it, so they made a substitution (insert your favorite sports analogy), called consumerism, which was really the death of communism.

    I use the consumerism concept because, much like recent medical advances, when you can’t fully articulate the internal dynamics of one negative party (think cancer), and therefore can’t develop specific solutions/treatments, you just “take your best shot,” and overwhelm that negative force with another, equally negative force (in this case, a virus). (Recent medical testing, with extremely favorable results, has demonstrated that massive injections of common viruses will kill cancer within a relatively short period of time.)

    So, the question could equally be: Is a political/military strategy really required/necessary, if a substitute commercial strategy is what does the job?

    In this case, maybe it was WalMart and consumerism who killed off America’s political strategy! And it was merely consumerism’s “collateral damage!”