When Clausewitz Meets Cézanne: Mastery and the Art of Future War

March 30, 2017

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What is the contribution of military mastery — the insight of the experienced warfighter — to future warfare? If the most lauded of Department of Defense innovation initiatives are any measure (the Defense Innovation Board, and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental — DIUx) the answer appears to be…not very much. Most defense innovation initiatives are geared toward geniuses and outsiders — cultivating partnerships with scientists and engineers; and curating bleeding edge concepts — biomimicry, artificial intelligence, quantum, and futurism fiction.

As I argue most recently in the journal Survival (“Genius and Mastery in Military Innovation), most of the innovation programs around today overemphasize the role of external novelty and underemphasize the role of deep organizational knowledge. This disjuncture for the love of the external genius over the internal organizational expert is commonly glossed over through the metaphor of the box. That is, creative innovation requires getting “outside the box.” And by being outside the box, one’s thinking is unbound by the structures that constrain creativity. Being inside the box, conversely, is to be insular, or stuck in ones thinking.

The problem with the box metaphor (and most programs of innovation) is that the inside/outside box distinction creates false associations when it comes to innovation. Namely that:

  1. Expertise within a domain is necessarily uncreative;
  2. Deep knowledge is intellectually constraining and therefore antithetical to innovation;
  3. Being outside a box is sufficient to change what is inside it.

In contrast, I offer that the concept of mastery in art, music, and philosophy resolutely challenges the box metaphor’s reductive logic. I begin with Paul Cézanne.

David Galenson’s book Old Masters and Young Geniuses describes the artistic approaches of Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne. Geniuses, like Picasso, are characterized by their jumping from form to form, experimenting across ideas. In contrast, there is Cézanne, the master. Rather than working across forms, Cézanne spent his life obsessing about a single concept. He worked year after year refining his work in still life painting, painstakingly giving weight and perspective to everyday objects. We are tempted, then, to describe Picasso as the creative innovator, and Cézanne as “stuck,” perhaps blinded, by his form. In reality, Picasso credited Cézanne — the father of Cubism — as the innovator. To Picasso, Cézanne was “my one and only master…Cézanne was like the father of us all.” It was mastery’s dedication to refinement and application in form that brought about a new era in painting. Not the experiments of Picasso, but the grounded and relentless application of a single concept to its highest form of expression. We frequently credit to genius what should be attributed to mastery.

In jazz, creativity and intellectual liberation are synonymous with deep knowledge of music’s structure and complexity. The improvisational logic of jazz, is actually a scholarly research niche for organizational innovation. Mastery in jazz is about fluency with the fundamentals — chords, melody, harmony, rhythm, instruments. Jazz does not break music’s boundaries to innovate. Instead, it infinitely reorders what exists in new and unexpected ways. Creativity requires structure and knowing how to manipulate it.

It is entirely possible that intellectual liberation comes from the development of expertise not in spite of it. In martial arts, we find the concept of Shu Ha Ri. This refers to a three-part development process of enabling creative capacity. Shu — follow rules, Ha — detaches from rules, and Ri — transcends rules. Or consider Taoism. In Chuang Tzu’s parable of the “Dexterous Butcher,” a cook, after being lauded for his ‘skill’ in knife work, replies:

What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now — now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants.

Finally, to the question of where innovation actually occurs, being outside or inside. The innovation Cézanne brought to the world was done from inside the confines of the art world. John Coltrane’s contribution to jazz wasn’t attributed to being in the Navy, though he probably drew some inspiration from it. Coltrane’s contribution and change to the jazz world was as a jazz musician. Genius offers new ideas that can lead to innovation. But innovation doesn’t happen from outside an organization or domain. Innovation is the reordering of an existing system — inside a domain. Implementation and adaptation require deep knowledge of a system and the capacity to manipulate it — this is the wheelhouse of mastery.

That we can find military relevance in art theory isn’t even radical. Carl von Clausewitz understood that war was both science and art. We don’t take this seriously enough in military innovation. Within the veteran warfighter there is military mastery; complex forms of deep knowledge we understand as intuition, gut feel, or more formally the coup d’oeil. “Art is in the doing…” Clausewitz said. In saying so, he relegates art (in all its complexity) to the expertise of the warfighter. With these simple phrases, Clausewitz isn’t talking about genius. Rather, he is talking about mastery and its contribution to the conduct of war — the creative and intuitive role of experience. This is the art of war.

Without concomitant emphasis placed on mastery, the current innovation bias toward outsiders, threatens our capacity to achieve actual change. Should DIUx and the Defense Innovation Board succeed in collecting as many new ideas and partnerships as they endeavor, the innovation problem will only compound itself at the doorsteps of the defense department. There will be a gigantic bottleneck of potential new systems with too few programs designed to implement those changes intelligently into doctrine, training, education, etc. As Chris Meissner and August Cole adroitly noted in their assessment of DIUx, (though speaking specifically of acquisition and bureaucracy) the changes outside aren’t translating to actual organizational change. Ergo, we must balance genius with mastery.

On the future warfighting front, there are only a handful of programs that seek to leverage the insights of military mastery as part of realizing the future force. They are less-well known and in need of recognition for their contribution to future warfare. Currently, the Joint Warfighting Assessment, stands as the nation’s premier joint/multinational live exercise that provides an operational — applied in the context of actual missions — assessment of future warfare’s concepts and capabilities.

Over a period of several months, participating active duty brigades take emerging concepts and capabilities and train to use them in live missions. Thereafter, they’re thrown into live iterative operational exercises for several weeks. Throughout the entire process observer controllers conduct surveys, focus groups, interviews, and collect written feedback exclusively from warfighters.

To be clear, the assessment isn’t a test of the technology per se. The entire purpose of the Joint Warfighting Assessment (AWA) is to glean the warfighter’s intuition of the operational promise of new capabilities, and how to integrate it effectively into the existing doctrine, training, and education ecosystem of warfighting. Commanding Gen. Terry McKenrick affirms, “Assessment at AWA isn’t about whether the technology meets some standard. A piece of kit can meet all the standards set forth by Army standards and still be wrong for the warfighter. We’re trying to figure that out early enough in the development process to create the right capabilities faster.”

While Brigade Modernization Command’s effort is to be lauded, it simply isn’t enough. The Joint Warfighting Assessment will need to grow aggressively over the coming years in order to meet the flood of new technologies and concepts necessary to create the future force. A case in point, late October 2016 marked the end of last year’s iteration of the assessment. The primary assessment brigade was the 2/1AD (2nd Brigade 1st Armored Division) supported by members of the Special Operations community, the Marine Corps, and a number of multinational forces from the United Kingdom, Australia, Denmark, Canada, and Italy. The sum total of soldiers, civilians, multinational forces, and joint forces numbered over 5,500 participants. In order to manage this entire affair Commanding General McKendrick makes due with a tiny staff of just under 200 civilians and service members.

Beyond this, McKendrick undoubtedly will struggle to ensure actual “joint” participation in the assessment. This is no small feat. First of all, obtaining enough experienced warfighters to provide thorough insight means coordinating the complex matrix of active duty training and deployment cycles so that warfighters can train, deploy, and experiment on a regular cycle. If this were only an Army endeavor this might be somewhat simple, but joint programs mean getting buy-in from competing services who are often more interested in securing their own budgets than playing well in the experimentation sand box. And finally, at the highest echelons, programs like the Joint Warfighting Assessment need clear and unambiguous support from the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of Defense that the warfighter’s insight is a necessary component to effective innovation. Essentially, that mastery matters just as much as genius. The Joint Warfighting Assessment’s intuition is consistent with a complete picture of military innovation. What it will need in coming years is consistent resourcing, more staffing, and a clear commitment from across the services.

There is evidence that more innovation programs are moving in this direction. Notably, last summer the Marine Corps announced the Sea Dragon 2025 live experimentation force. Not only will these marines test emerging capabilities in an operational context, but they’ll actually take them with them on their deployment. Throughout their entire deployment cycle the experimental force will be accompanied by observers. Somewhat similar to the Army’s operational assessment, the observer controllers will gather warfighter feedback to develop future doctrine and operating procedures.

In practical terms, making a clear case for mastery in military innovation is no simple task. Fluency of a domain of action may be a higher bar than most warfighters may ever attain. Moreover, how would a service know a warfighter has achieved mastery? The question points directly to military selection, training and education systems. They will play a direct role in determining whether masters are cultivated or discouraged in an organization. The good news is, unlike genius, mastery has a clear developmental emphasis. This aligns well with the overarching spirit of what the services hope to do with their men and women. Whether they actually do it well, is a matter of pedagogical practice and purpose.

Overall, the central point stands. Innovation — not just the cultivation of ideas — but actual innovation, is the responsibility of the practitioners inside their field. This is a point too easily missed in the current rush to new technology and partnerships. If we need more of anything in the quest for innovation, it is clear thinking about how to leverage the creativity and expertise of those already in the system.


Dr. Nina Kollars studies military innovation processes in complex environments. Kollars obtained her PhD in Political Science from The Ohio State University. Her most recent publications have been featured in the Journal of Strategic Studies, Security Studies, and Survival. Nina was the 2016 Army Capabilities Integration Center Distinguished Lecturer. Dr. Kollars is Assistant Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College. She also carries a number of affiliations including; non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point Military Academy, and co-director of the D.C. based group Cigars, Scotch & Strategy.

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