Bridge to Fiasco: How Language Imprisons American Strategy


What kills you is the easy terrain. Every grunt knows this. The smartest path is often the hardest. It’s easier walking on the crest of a ridge than the slope, but it also silhouettes you against the sky, making you a target even Gomer Pyle could hit. So, unless you want to die, you walk on the slope, the “military crest.” But when you do that, gravity has a way of sucking you down into draws. It’s easier to walk in draws than on slopes, but down there you can’t see very far, so you lose situational awareness. And if someone attacks while you’re down there, they can shoot you like fish in a barrel. Just so, roads, streams, and paths offer false comfort. They’re easy to identify, so it’s easier tell where you are, but that’s also why they’re easy to watch and to target. So, if you want to get ambushed, follow a stream. If you want to step on a mine, walk near a path. If you want a mortar round on your head, just stick to the roads. And still, despite the obvious hazards, the easy terrain seduces you. Especially if you’re tired, in a hurry, and trying to keep a formation together. You have to work to stay away from the convenient ground and be deliberately conscious of where gravity is trying to take you.

The same is true of conceptual terrain. Just as physical terrain shapes tactical outcomes, the logical topography of language shapes strategic judgments. Those who seek to avoid future fiascos often agree that America’s key mistakes in Iraq were conceptual. Most American strategists know that they need to change their strategic imagination, and on the face of it, this sounds pretty straightforward. Yet, like tactical movement over terrain, what’s simple conceptually can be hard in practice. Reforming one’s strategic imagination is tricky because of the way language works. Language is the matrix in which reasoning occurs. It is humankind’s primary medium for perceiving the world, and like gravity on a slope, habits of speech pull one imperceptibly toward well-worn ideas. Language, like physical terrain, is patterned. It has repeating features: the conceptual equivalent of crests and draws, streams and roads that routinely channel thought in certain directions. In tactical scenarios, you get sucked in by the easy terrain. In strategic scenarios, you get seduced by linguistic habits. This is why ideas can seem genuinely new when they’re really just a re-shuffling of the same old cards. This is why, with Iraq, analysts have tended to ask second-order questions about ideology and war planning, but stop short of first-order questions, such as why we believed that war is a tool.

This belief in war’s tool-like utility was the bridge between strategic goals and military action in 2003. The United States invaded Iraq not because its hand was forced, but as a deliberate act of constructive policy. Invading Iraq was intended “to make the world not just safer but better.” In a single move, the United States tried to address “the overlap between states that sponsor terror and those that pursue weapons of mass destruction,” and to create “conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves…the single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” Assuming (strictly for the sake of argument) that those goals were correctly conceived and weighed, the question remains why Americans thought war was a plausible method to pursue them. There had to be a third belief linking strategic aspirations to war-making. That logical bridge was the notion that war can be used as a tool. This bridge is part of the “easy terrain” in American strategic language. It is what made the Iraq war plausible and it is still open for travel.

What I want to do here is examine the structure of this bridge. The piers and girders of this bridge – the logical backbone that holds it together – is called “military monism.” Military monism is the notion that all instances of war boil down to the same fundamental essence. In other words, before you can believe in war’s tool-likeness you must first accept the premise that war is (despite appearances) always one-and-only-one thing. This is a myth – military monism is empirically untrue – but as I’ve already shown, it is ingrained in American language, embedded in everyday words for war. To see how this myth can skew perception, it helps to look at common diagrams of war such as “the spectrum of conflict” displayed in many ROTC textbooks, and the various timelines of war in many recent books on strategy. Such diagrams condense the entire monistic outlook, summarize it at a glance.

“The spectrum of conflict” is a simple straight line festooned with terms of derivation and deviation. These terms do not – cannot – provide real information about war. They can only affirm the myth, and the main logical function of the spectrum is to veil this imperfection. Similar to the spectrum in shape and purpose are the timelines of ages, generations, eras, and revolutions drawn by proponents of the “revolution in military affairs” and “fourth-generation warfare”. Much like terms of derivation and deviation these “terms of succession” propagate the myth that war is (despite appearances) essentially monolithic. Unlike terms of derivation and deviation, which simply deny all diversity, terms of succession concede that war can vary, but transfer that variety into the past, so that war remains always only one thing at a time. Simple monism becomes sequential monism. In both cases, the result is the same: a sophomoric strategic vocabulary that makes the fanciful seem realistic. Whether the monism is veiled from view (as the spectrum does) or confined to the present (as the timelines do), either way, the myth works like a geo-political mirage filling one’s world with strategic options that don’t really exist.

A Faux-Scientific Spectrum

When I encountered the spectrum of conflict as a midshipman back in the 1990s, it looked exactly like the electromagnetic spectrum in my physics textbook. Like its electromagnetic cousin, the diagram of the spectrum was a long, rectangular sliver of rainbow, but with different labels: At the extreme ends, “infrared” and “ultraviolet” had been replaced by “global nuclear war” and “military operations other than war”, respectively, with terms of derivation and deviation (e.g., conventional war, irregular war, low-intensity conflict, etc.) strung in between. This choice of graphics was highly suggestive, especially for a kid immersed in the Naval Academy’s STEM-heavy curriculum. It gave American military doctrine an aura of scientific prestige, suggesting that war-making had the same level of precision, as chemistry or physics. The electromagnetic spectrum, of course, had been pieced together slowly, frequency by frequency. Just so, the spectrum of conflict appeared to have been painstakingly mapped through similar decades of careful experimentation. One imagined the chief of naval operations in lab coat and goggles placing samples of war in a mass spectrometer. Each type of war, like each mineral, would emit a signature chromatogram which marked its immutable location on the universal spectrum of conflict.

Of course, this is not true. The spectrum of conflict lacks a universal, empirically verifiable unit of measure. One gauges electromagnetism in nanometers, but there are no equivalent “units of conflict.” So, the spectrum offers no substantial information about conflict qua conflict. In the end, its information content is institutional: It lists the U.S. military’s responsibilities, and its sequencing marks both the perceived gravity of each, and the priority of each relative to the others. It is just a rainbow-colored summary of the Defense Department’s scope of work. Yet, one doesn’t need a diagram to convey such information; a prioritized checklist will do.

Turning that checklist into a spectrum adds no useful information, but it does add dogma. By definition, two items on the same “spectrum” can differ only in degree, not in kind. So, the purpose of the spectrum of conflict (and similar diagrams) is to assert the belief that all U.S. military tasks are radically similar, that activities as technically and experientially diverse as general nuclear war and “military operations other than war” are ultimately the same kind of thing, belong in the same category, have an intrinsic relationship. This is a venerable belief. But empirically speaking, the only clear link between many of the items on the spectrum is that they happen to be a worry of the U.S. government, or assigned to the U.S. military.

Pseudo-Historical Timelines

Another line diagram, the pseudo-historical timeline, copes with strange wars in a comparably unsatisfying way. During the 1990s, the “revolution in military affairs” had come to dominate military theory, spawning buzzwords like springtime bunnies – force transformation, network-centric warfare, effects-based operations, and fourth generation warfare. These clustered into two groups: network-centric warfare/effects-based operations for the optimists, fourth-generation warfare for the critics. Each group (oblivious to the basic problems of historical periodization) expressed itself with a characteristic timeline, much as alchemical sects once condensed their knowledge into hieroglyphs. The optimists generated a range of chronologies. Andrew Krepinevich proposed eleven revolutions beginning in 1337, each driven by a new technology: longbows; cannons; gunships; artillery fortresses; muskets; standardized firearms; rifling and the telegraph; machineguns; naval armor, steam power and submarines; the radio, aircraft and vehicles; and (11) nuclear ballistic missiles and computers. Alvin and Heidi Toffler condensed this schema into three “waves,” each driven by a dominant means of production: agrarian (misty past), industrial (19th-century), information (21st-century). Critics such as Bill Lind and T.X. Hammes countered with a four-generation sequence of tactical norms, each of which was the military face of deep socio-economic structures, technologies, and political institutions which allegedly typified a given time-period. Beginning in 1648, they asserted, “ancient” tactics gave way to a series of discrete military eras: manpower, firepower, maneuver, and asymmetric. Perhaps because it was sound-bitable, the Department of Defense leadership smiled on the Tofflers’ simple timeline. By 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice Adm. Art Cebrowski’sTransformation Planning Guidance” would mention quite casually that war was “transitioning from an industrial age to an information age” and that the first military to master information technology would be omnipotent.

Still, there wasn’t a lot of difference between the doctrinally anointed optimists and the pessimists. The various theorists saw one another as antagonists, but their schemas shared the same structure and the same basic premises. First, they were all vague, except for the most recent centuries (an eyeblink in historical time), and patently Eurocentric. Second, they all accepted the same logical premises: that history moves in discrete stages, that at every stage war has only one essence, that the world is currently witnessing a “generational shift in war,” and that the current shift is driven by information technology. They differed only in how to name the shift. The proponents of “network-centric warfare” and “effects-based operations” focused on conventional war, while the proponents of “fourth generation warfare” flipped the coin, asserting that “the predominant form of war” was now “small wars.” Regardless of quibbles, they all seem to have been cribbed from a third-rate Western civilization textbook (or a Stalinist tract on dialectical materialism). One has to ignore mounds of empirical historical evidence to accept them; exceptions far outnumber examples. Name the era, and the previous eras’ technologies continue to exist, continue to remain viable, and continue to be used by plenty of warriors to make plenty of war (however unauthorized, unfashionable, or irrelevant to one’s own concerns). In the end, these timelines were not about the past but the present: what to make of computerized weapons and computers-as-weapons.

Comparing Deceptive Diagrams

Why bother with timelines at all? What does pseudo-historicizing add to strategic discussions? What does a timeline do that a spectrum does not? Why not just plop “computerized conventional war” onto the spectrum and be done? There are, after all, considerable parallels between the timeline and the spectrum. Both diagrams use visual space in much the same way, and this reveals a shared monistic logic. On both lines, strange wars reside only on the far left while the different flavors of familiar war occupy most of the visual space. From the vagueness of that left edge, one jumps to concrete pseudo-specificity on the rest of the line. Their labelling is also similar. The timeline’s leftmost edge is called agrarian (or pre-Westphalian or pre-longbow) while the spectrum’s leftmost edge is called “irregular” (or low-intensity, or “operations other-than-war”), but both edge categories serve the same function: they literally sideline anomalous evidence. Such labels are nothing more than dustbins, conceptual black boxes. Open them up and you’ll find a hodge-podge of wars that are (on their own terms) quite unrelated to one another. One assigns wars to these dustbin categories not because they bear a substantial resemblance to each other, but because one happens to find them inconvenient. Such labels signal nothing more than reality’s failure to fit one’s own arbitrary schema. Different wars may fail to fit that schema in different ways, but the precise mode of failure doesn’t matter; what matters is that they add complexity where one wishes to portray uniformity. The left edge of the diagram is where one places (willy-nilly) any evidence that happens to affront one’s belief that war is monolithic, that war must be – can only ever be – one thing at a time.

Yet, while both diagrams share the logic of military monism, they deploy that logic in different ways for different purposes. For instance, both the timeline and the spectrum start with ambiguity, but only the timeline is open-ended, and this is key to its purpose. Because the spectrum is supposed to be comprehensive, it is a static image, self-contained, immutable, complete. Meanwhile, the timeline is, by definition, incomplete; it not only lists categories, but gestures toward unseen categories beyond its right-most edge. Both spectrum and timeline assume that war is monolithic, but the spectrum’s purpose is declarative (‘we know exactly what war is and how it works’), while the timeline’s purpose can be prescriptive (‘we should start doing this or that’). The spectrum declares that at their root all possible tasks are always the same. In effect, this is a message of omnicompetence: If all possible tasks are always radically similar, then America’s military capability is relevant to every possible task. The timeline, by contrast, declares that there is only ever one military task per era. This may also be a way of claiming omnicompetence, if the last era on the timeline matches American strengths. But if the last era does not match those strengths, it is a prescription for change. To assert the dawn of a new era, is to prescribe a new military structure. It is also, of course, to exclude alternatives and deny complexities.

Picturing a Shared Myth

The spectrum and the timeline should interest the national security community for two reasons. First, they express a notion of war – military monism – that is dubious, if not false. Second, this gut-level notion of war is pre-partisan, shared by average citizens and by all schools of foreign policy, embedded in our everyday language for war, and expressed in common diagrams such as the “spectrum of warfare” and timelines of war. Being pervasive, this myth places all of America’s war-related decisions on a false premise.

The Iraq War is a good example of how our myth-laden language drives real decisions. The 9/11 Commission concluded, “the 9/11 attacks revealed… failures in imagination” which culminated in “narrow… menus of options for action,” and mistaken “calculations about whether or how to go to war.” This summarizes a host of well-known concerns. At the strategic level (“whether” to go to war), interventionist ideas dominated foreign policy debates, while warnings about over-reach and quagmire got no traction. At the operational level (“how” to go to war), U.S. leadership refused to plan for a proper occupation, a decision linked to the belief democracy emerges naturally or automatically. Important as these specific concerns are, they do not get to the root of the problem. They are second-order concerns.

Beneath the issues of motives and planning lies a set of pre-existing beliefs about war. To Americans, war means solving problems, or rather, annihilating problems, to build a better world. People all over the world know that wars have consequences, but we Americans talk as if those consequences can be controlled, as if (given the right technique, of course) war can yield precise results, the results I want and intend. When discussing big worries, the favorite word-picture is war: war on terror, war on drugs, war on poverty, war on cancer, etc. This war-talk extends far beyond politics. And it never invokes half-measures. “War” does not mean I want to influence a problem, or cope with it. It means I want to exterminate it. It means I’m aiming for complete mastery. It means I expect total resolution. War thus comes to be seen as a tool for building a better world. But this metaphor only works because of the underlying logic of “military monism”: It hinges on the false assumption that “war” is a uniform phenomenon rather than a varied human practice.

This language pattern is what made the invasion of Iraq seem both plausible and needful. The 9/11 attacks seemed to reveal a problem more acute than cancer, drugs, or poverty. The American response followed the familiar cultural pattern. Filtered through the lens of America’s post-Cold War worries, 9/11 seemed to reveal that the problems of globalization had metastasized into a crisis. True to form, Americans aimed not to cope with this problem but to eliminate it. Attacking the problem at its roots, the 2002 National Security Strategy aspired to create “conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves…the single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” The method selected to implement this solution was war. That choice seemed obvious to many strategists at the time, not just to ideologues or idealists. As erudite a strategist as Philip Bobbitt agreed: “The choice is ours… a series of low-intensity, information-guided wars linked by a commitment to reinforcing world order, or a gradually increasing anarchy.” Yet, compelling as it seemed at the time, this reasoning was not inevitable. It voiced the widespread belief that that war is a tool for building a better world. In this way, pre-existing habits of language formed the bridge between strategic goals and military action in Iraq.

This is why the spectrum of conflict and recent “timelines of war” are significant. Both kinds of diagram are literally structured by “military monism,” which is the logical backbone of war-as-tool. And both kinds of diagrams are non-partisan. They are supposed to be merely descriptive or heuristic, and so provide the kind of neutral “facts” that all policymakers use to build their theories. If all proposals are based on the same false premise, there is little hope that switching between them will yield a better result.

The non-partisan nature of “military monism” is why it is so important. It is not the property of any one school of foreign policy. It is the common property of realists, idealists, liberals, and neoconservatives alike. It follows that, given the right circumstances, any of these schools could lead America into the next Iraq. They may drive there in a different-colored car, but they’ll be driving over the same bridge.

In re-imagining American strategy, then, the first goal, must be therapeutic: to solve only those problems that cannot be dis-solved. Fresh strategic perspectives will emerge, but if recent history is any guide, most of them will be a creative re-shuffling of the same old linguistic cards. To avoid this, strategists need to ask first-order questions, to debate basic terms and assumptions, and map the linguistic contours of their conceptual terrain.


Tim Feist served in the U.S. Marines from 1998 to 2007, during which time he led Guns Platoon, B/1/11 (“The Beastmasters”) and taught history at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Image: U.S. Army/Brandon Banzhaf