Colin S. Gray: A Reminiscence

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Colin S. Gray passed away earlier this year, in February. He was undoubtedly one of the great strategic thinkers of his age. I have no hesitation in placing him alongside the likes of Bernard Brodie and Thomas Schelling in the pantheon of modern strategic thought. If you seek to understand the nature of strategy, Colin’s work is essential reading. Still, for some, Colin was a controversial figure. In an age of postmodernism, Colin’s traditional and often strident approach to matters of war, especially his earlier work in nuclear strategy, ruffled feathers. Indeed, it is still rare to find degree programs dedicated to strategic studies. Many departments with programs or centers in “conflict studies” are actually primarily interested in conflict resolution. In contrast, Colin was steadfastly dedicated to understanding the theoretical foundations of grand and military strategy.

I knew Colin for 25 years, studying under him and working with him at both Hull and Reading universities. It was he who first introduced me to strategic studies. His passion and scholarly approach to the subject, embedded in a rich blend of theory and history, was infectious. A prolific writer, Colin’s most obvious contribution is the many books and articles he produced. However, less well-known is the fact that he was an incredibly supportive mentor of future strategic scholars. In this sense, Colin’s legacy is not just to be found in his considerable body of written work, but also in the nurturing environment he created for his students and colleagues.

Introduction to Strategy

I first met Colin in fall 1995, when I enrolled in his security studies program as an M.A. student. As a history and international relations graduate, I had briefly come across his work critiquing arms control (House of Cards, 1992), but I had little inkling of what a significant figure he was in the strategic studies community. It did not take me long to realize that Colin was an academic heavyweight. Thus, I joined Colin’s vibrant Ph.D. program. It was during this time that I experienced Colin’s considerable commitment to his doctoral students. Despite his substantial workload, Colin willingly ran weekly Ph.D. seminars and brown-bag lunches. These meetings were a lively forum where we discussed the strategic topics of the day, but also aspects of the academic profession. It was clear that Colin felt a responsibility to prepare the next generation of strategic scholars.

Colin’s care for his students, allied to his considerable scholarly presence, created enormous loyalty among his doctoral cohort. Looking back, we felt like a band of brothers, defending traditional strategic studies against the wave of critical security studies then on the rise. One year, we attended the British International Studies Association’s annual conference en masse, all sporting goatees (including Colin), with our Clausewitzian maxims ready to hand. There was even talk amongst the PhD cohort of having a T-shirt printed for the following year, adorned with an appropriate quote from the Prussian theorist! Behind the japery, there was a serious point: We were convinced of the need to keep the strategic flame burning.

During my studies, Colin proffered a piece of advice that had a significant influence on me: “Never be afraid to challenge the orthodoxy.” It was, perhaps, this willingness to take on established ideas that partly explains Colin’s development of nuclear warfighting theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Expressed most stridently in two journal articles, “Victory Is Possible” (1980) and “Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory” (1979), Colin helped develop the nuclear strategy debate beyond the confines of deterrence theory and assured destruction. However, Colin was not merely acting as an iconoclast, or being needlessly hawkish for controversy’s sake. Rather, he was, as he did throughout his career, applying strategic logic. Colin was certainly cognizant of the severe challenges nuclear weapons posed to strategy, but he never allowed the ends, ways, and means to become disconnected. Moreover, whatever the subject at hand, Colin was forever mindful of the Clausewitzian nature of war, in all its rational, non-rational, competitive, and uncertain glory.

As a consequence of these theoretical foundations, Colin knew that deterrence could not be taken for granted, that it might fail, and that a nuclear war might have to be fought. Should that occur, like all wars, there needed to be a theory of victory to drive forward nuclear strategy. Such ideas were gaining traction at the time in policy circles. The infamous Presidential Decision Directive 59, signed by President Jimmy Carter, formally instituted countervailing as a strategy against the Soviet Union. Although somewhat conflicted in its views on nuclear weapons, the Reagan administration went further, seeking capabilities to fight and prevail in a protracted nuclear war.

Ever the Clausewitzian, Colin convincingly argued that the use of nuclear weapons needed political guidance and a clear policy objective. In the context of the Cold War, the most likely candidate appeared to be destroying the Soviet political system and preventing its recovery. Furthermore, in “War-Fighting for Deterrence” (1984), Colin persuasively argued that a robust warfighting posture also enhanced the credibility of deterrence, thereby bringing a degree of totality to nuclear strategy — linking prewar deterrence to post-deterrence operations.

Toward the end of his career, Colin challenged the orthodoxy again. In The Strategy Bridge (2010), Colin questioned the utility of the operational level, which by then had become part and parcel of the military doctrinal landscape. Colin argued that the general theory of strategy did not require an operational level. Moreover, he expressed concern that too much focus on the operational level could impede cooperation between the tactical and strategic levels.

Strategic Culture

It was partly through nuclear strategy that Colin made a significant contribution to the strategic culture debate. In works such as Nuclear Strategy and National Style (1986), Colin was instrumental in the first generation of cultural theorists in strategy. In what was often an uphill battle in the early years, Colin and his peers fought hard to inculcate a cultural dimension to strategic thought and defense policy. For Colin, it was axiomatic that strategy was a cultural activity. As it was conducted by encultured individuals and institutions, how could it be otherwise? The strategic culture fraternity convincingly argued that geography, historical experience, socially transmitted ideas, etc. had an inevitable influence on strategic behavior.

However, revealing his scholarly acumen, Colin was far from deterministic in his analysis on culture. He was acutely aware of the methodological challenges of cultural analysis, and revealed conceptual nuance through his understanding that strategic actors contained multiple cultures; that other influences were at play in strategic choices and action; that events could overawe cultural preferences; and that identifying cause and effect between culture and strategic behavior was fraught with difficulty. Colin’s understanding of strategic culture is perhaps best summed up in two quotes from his 1999 article, “Strategic Culture as Context”: “Strategic culture … is a useful notion, provided one does not ask too much of it,” and, “Strategic culture provides context, even where the final choice is all but counter-cultural.”

Strategy in All Forms

Strategic studies is a broad and occasionally expanding church. As new technologies and security challenges emerge, so the discipline seeks to understand the implications. No one was better at this than Colin. Over his long career, Colin cast his strategic gaze over nuclear weapons, arms control, seapower, cyber power, geopolitics, technology, defense planning, small wars, and more. A particularly fine example of this is his 2012 work, Airpower for Strategic Effect. As someone who has taught airpower for over 20 years, I can testify to the fact that Colin’s book was very much needed. Commentary on airpower, as with many forms of military power, can get lost in the technical, tactical, and operational details. It is all too easy to focus on the means, while underappreciating the manner in which they must further the ends, in different contexts. Colin rectified this tendency, placing airpower in both a theoretical and historical context. Cutting through the many debates surrounding airpower (coercion, strategic bombing, irregular warfare), Colin cut to the chase with his definition (building upon Billy Mitchell): “Air power may be defined as the ability to do something strategically useful in the air.” Again, Colin was rightly focusing our attention on the process of strategic effect.

Colin took a similar approach to future warfare. In Another Bloody Century (2006), which dealt with the gamut of pertinent strategic issues of the time, Colin once again deployed theory and history. On this occasion, and having counseled against the dangers of prediction, he provided essential context for thinking about regular and irregular warfare, space, cyberspace, weapons of mass destruction, and whether war could be controlled or eradicated from the human condition. That context was constructed of technology, society, culture, and above all politics. Colin reassured the reader, and the policymaker charged with producing future-looking defense policy, that the nature of war is both eternal and well understood. The essence of that reassurance is found in the maxim “Clausewitz rules!” As a consequence of this truth on the eternal nature of war, “it follows that history is our best, albeit incomplete, guide to the future.”

General Theory of Strategy

One of the frustrations of strategic studies is that, while there are countless books on the history and experience of war, there are very few works on strategic theory. This is problematic, because as economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek notes, “Without a theory the facts are silent.” General strategic theory, that which explains the process of strategy regardless of context, is an even rarer breed. Colin sought to rectify this deficiency in works such as Modern Strategy (1999), The Strategy Bridge (2010), and Theory of Strategy (2018). The Strategy Bridge is arguably Colin’s most important contribution to strategic theory. In terms of strategic wisdom, it is overflowing. Almost every page contains important insights on the nature, process, and difficulties of conducting strategy. Moreover, one is struck by the quality of Colin’s scholarly treatment of strategy, approaching every issue with nuance and multiple layers of analysis. Reflecting a long-held theme in Colin’s work, and echoing Brodie, The Strategy Bridge is insistent that strategic theory must be theory for action. In this vein, Colin is rightly adamant that “strategic effect” is the essential outcome of strategy. However, Colin showed acute awareness of the methodological challenges of measuring said effect in different contexts. The theory for action motif was developed further in Theory of Strategy, this time under the guise of fostering “strategic sense.”

In his later years, Colin increasingly produced taxonomies (and occasionally diagrams) to help explain his approach to strategy. This is evident in the 40 maxims in Fighting Talk (2009), the 21 dicta in The Strategy Bridge, and the 23 principles in Theory of Strategy. However, despite the many insights to be found in these later works, I still prefer the minimalism of the “dimensions of strategy” found in Modern Strategy. Building on the earlier work of Clausewitz and Michael Howard, Colin broke down strategy into its component parts. Although humble enough to recognize that his categorization is unlikely to be the final word on the subject, Colin identified 17 dimensions, which he divided into three categories: “People and Politics,” “War Preparation,” and “War Proper.” The dimensions include society, culture, technology, command, and time, to name just five. Aside from disclosing the range and complexity of strategic activity, Colin’s analysis is sobering because he notes that competence is required in all of the dimensions. Poor performance in one area can lead to strategic failure.

The dimensions of strategy taxonomy is so encompassing, and based on such a wealth of conceptual and historical understanding, that the theory has enormous theoretical, pedagogic, and practical value. Theoretically, the dimensions enable us to get a grip on the complex nature of strategy, yet break it down into manageable components. In the classroom, the dimensions offer a ready-made approach to decipher complex case studies in strategic success or failure. Practically, for those doing strategy, one can regard the dimensions as a sort of checklist to ensure that all bases are covered, all issues have been addressed. One a personal note, I was fortunate enough to see the dimensions of strategy take shape during our Ph.D. lunchtime seminars. It was quite a thrill to watch one of the great strategic thinkers grapple with the core of his subject.

Evolving Positions

Although Colin had some enduring foundations to his work — Clausewitz being the most obvious and consistent point of reference (although he was insistent that On War should not be regarded as a sacred text) — he was passionate in his belief that strategic theory was a living thing, and therefore was prepared to challenge his own established positions. This is no more evident than in his later thoughts on nuclear warfighting. First hinted at in The Strategy Bridge, in Theory of Strategy Colin stepped back from his original warfighting position, and joined the likes of Lawrence Freedman in arguing that “in use” nuclear weapons are astrategic. For those of us who have closely followed Colin’s work on nuclear strategy, the following sentence is jarring: “[T]here can be no meaningful nuclear strategy. If used in warfare, nuclear weapons would be most likely too powerful to serve political purposes.”

Not only is this a significant moment in the warfighting debate, it also has significant implications for Colin’s general theory of strategy. Having regularly insisted that strategic theory should be universal, Colin claims that “nuclear use cannot readily be accommodated within the general theory of strategy.” This caused one of our rare disagreements on a point of strategy. And, although I remain very much a warfighting theorist, I applaud the fact that as a strategic thinker Colin continued to reassess his positions on the big-ticket issues. Moreover, by acknowledging a possible exception to the general theory of strategy, Colin revealed that he was not hamstrung by the quest for easy or neat positions; he was prepared for the complexities and nuances of strategy to stand.

Strategic History

Colin was primarily a strategic theorist, but he and I shared a passion for history. Indeed, during my time as his graduate teaching assistant at Hull, he encouraged me to teach my own course on strategic history. Coming full circle, and ever the mentor, in our last email exchange (in the month before he died) Colin recommended a raft of books for my next writing project on the Second World War. Although responsible for some heavy theoretical tomes, Colin was also able to write accessible introductory texts in strategic history. This is no more evident than with the popular War, Peace and International Relations (2007), in which Colin takes the reader through a history of strategic practice from Napoleon onward. Each chapter provides a concise flow of events and identifies the important strategic themes thereof. War, Peace and International Relations showed that Colin was able to distill his vast strategic knowledge and understood the needs of a particular readership. Indeed, in this form Colin’s work has proved invaluable when teaching strategic history to undergraduates.

The Strategic Flame

If the reader will permit, I will finish with four personal observations regarding Colin’s influence on my approach to strategic analysis. Although reflecting my own experiences of Colin, I believe they are useful to all of us who grapple with strategy.

Colin was insistent on the holistic nature of strategy, on elevating the analysis above the tactical level, and ultimately with strategic effect. Reflecting this, early on in my strategic education he introduced me to the “So What?” question — what Colin called the skeleton key of strategic analysis. When faced with a historic battle, new technology, or operational choice, the strategic analyst should always ask “so what?”; what were, are, or will be the consequences for politics? Secondly, when commenting upon my draft Ph.D. chapters, Colin would often write (in his infamous red ink), “Do you really mean that?” This reflected Colin’s quest for careful, accurate scholarship, and instilled in me an invaluable habit. Thirdly, I was struck by Colin’s description of Clausewitz as “my constant companion,” regardless of the strategic issue at hand. This embedded within me an appreciation of the need for a coherent conceptual framework in my own strategic analysis. Finally, Colin once said that the best ideas are in the pen, waiting to be released in the process of writing. It is only when we intellectually struggle with a subject, and especially when we try to present it in a concise and intelligible manner, that we really begin to understand it ourselves.

At the best of times, strategy is complex and vexing. With the passing of Colin Gray, our grip on strategy feels a little less secure. However, and thankfully, Colin so comprehensively advanced our understanding of strategy that in his works we have the tools required to face the strategic challenges that lie ahead. Without a doubt, Colin has played a leading part in keeping the strategic flame alive for future generations.



David J. Lonsdale is a senior lecturer in war studies at Hull University, U.K. He is the author of Understanding Contemporary Strategy, Alexander the Great: Lessons in Strategy, and The Nature of War in the Information Age: Clausewitzian Future.

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