09 September 2009

On Strategy

(Largely posted in response to Tom Ricks’ articles on his blog, here , here, and here, plus a post from Andrew Exum here)

For years, whenever I would talk to my parents, they would always ask me “what do they say about Iraq/Afghanistan?” I suspect they were under the impression that junior officers were much more tuned in to the grand strategy and overall campaign goals of those conflicts, and would dispel many of the negative reports that came out of those wars (particularly in 2003-2007 in Iraq and presently in Afghanistan).

This was always a difficult question to answer, because the omnipresent “they” never said much about the overarching grand strategy in those nations. Truth be told, most officers at the battalion level would sooner talk about the various line item numbers on their property book than about the long-term political goals and ethnic makeup of the Taliban. This is particularly true in the aviation community, as we typically don’t get involved with the local population, save for the occasional tracer burst or missile contrail coming our way.

In fact, the few times military leaders actually took the time to discuss military strategy with me were laughably bad. One such occasion sticks out in my mind. During our captains’ career course, a colonel attempted to explain to us the long-term over-arching strategy in Iraq. Are you ready for it? Wait, it might be kind of complicated, so get out your notebook:

“You’re fighting them [monolithic terrorism?] over there, so that we don’t have to fight them over here”

While there were a number good arguments for continued involvement in Iraq when this statement was made in 2007 (David Kilcullen having one of the best arguments), this was not one of them. This theory, which is often referred to the “Flypaper Theory of Counterterrorism” is the very nadir of strategic thought. Simply put, the adherents of this theory believe that the presence of US forces in foreign countries basically act as a beacon to which terrorists flock and are subsequently destroyed. I guess, according to the theory, the world runs out of terrorists and we return victorious. This theory is grossly over simplistic, naïve, and could not be more ill-conceived. Most importantly, it discounts the fact that only a small minority of insurgents in Iraq were foreign fighters who came to Iraq to attack the US military—the vast majority of insurgents were comprised of a myriad of “accidental guerillas” who fought for any one of a number of reasons. Nevertheless, that was about the only lesson in American grand strategy I ever received. I decided that, from that point on, I’d need to educate myself in matters of strategy, and I might need to get off the beaten path in order to do it.

Many have noted that strategic thought is absent from the curricula of most military courses--particularly in the aviation community, where we never even utter words like “sectarian violence”, let alone compose in-depth analysis of relations between Washington and Tehran. Indeed, Andrew Exum makes the keen point that this might be the case because, particularly in today’s Army, it takes Herculean effort just to master the administrative and technical aspects of modern combat. Modern commander’s find it difficult to see the forest for the trees when confronted with a myriad of technical and administrative minutiae.

Focus: Strategic thought in the military: where do you see it being practiced? When should we introduce it to our leaders?


El Goyito said...

The mantra "if we don't fight them there (in various Developing World dives), we'll have to fight them here (in the USA)" doesn't apply when one considers the biggest foreign danger on U.S. soil - Mexican drug cartels.

Anonymous said...

As an enterprising Marine Corps intelligence officer, I would argue that part of the responsibility you speak of is on us, the intelligence community, to bring to you the relevance of situation around you. Whether that be at any of the big three levels, your job (as a pilot, a warfighter, a trigger puller) is to focus on the fight, it's our job (as your IC liason) to remind you why you're doing what you're doing and that you're aware of what lies beyond the Rmax of your weapon.

Where should strategic thought be practiced? As often as possible, along with operational and tactical thought. In today's asymmetric warfare, every soldier, sailor, airmen, or Marine can operate and impact any level of battle at any time, as the "three block war" methodology reminds us. That assumption directly answers your second question, that strategic thought should be pushed down to the furthest level possible, especially in our leadership cadre. It's never too early to reiterate the importance of thinking outside your unit's boundaries on any level, whether that be strategic, operational, or tactical. Just as in the ranks of our citizens, the ranks of our military should encourage analysis and debate as much as possible.