the craft of cunning





Essay by Lauren Sorrell



A paralysing intricacy awaits any individual who approaches the fields of military strategy and statecraft. In this essay, our author Lauren Sorrell joins the ranks of thinkers and academics who have obstinately sought out the roots of this complexity.





Why is strategy difficult?


From presidents to diplomats, many agree that creating and implementing comprehensive strategy is difficult and is more challenging, and undoubtedly more important, than perfecting tactics or selecting weapons. For the reason that, without a thorough strategy, the volume of tactical engagements won could all be in vain. In brief, strategy is the bridge that connects the means, ways, and ends of war. Therefore, it is imperative that we understand how to combat the difficulties of strategy. Field Marshal von Moltke wrote in Instructions for Superior Commanders that “strategy is the application of common sense to the conduct of war. The difficulty lies in its execution.” Whilst it may seem straightforward, strategists must compete with many problems when envisioning, planning, and executing strategy. Throughout this essay, we will explore the difficulties surrounding strategy, and comprehensively review why these enigmas contribute to the complication of strategy. Instigating our investigation with the absence of a clear definition regarding strategy, and we will then proceed to investigate the difficulties of training strategists to deal with the complexity of strategy, uncertainty, the dilemma of intelligent enemies, and friction.


Though this essay will not be concentrating solely on the definition, or lack thereof, of strategy, one cannot overlook a hindrance that faces strategists from the get-go. Although a seemingly simple concept, there is no universal agreement on its definition. The term strategy initially referred to what we know today as military strategy, deriving from the ancient Greek word strategia (στρατηγία), originally concerning the art of the general. But today, we now see many different definitions concerning the word. For Jomini, writing during the Napoleonic period, strategy was “the art of making war upon the map.” Jomini is focused on the entire theatre of war, whereas, Clausewitz argued that “strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war.” Clausewitz is instead focusing on the battle, he sees strategy as a succession of engagements, optimistically leading to victory. Last of all, von Moltke believed that “strategy is the practical adaptation of the means placed at a general’s disposal to the attainment of the object in war.” Here, we see the belief that strategy is practical and pragmatic. Perplexing as it may seem, this absence of a comprehensive definition of strategy thus complicates how we understand the subject. If reaching an agreement regarding a common definition of strategy is so complex, then surely preparing and executing strategy is even more complicated? Many agree that strategy is the affiliation between the ends, ways, and means. Ends are the objectives pursued, means are the resources obtainable to acquire said objectives and ways are how one employs said resources. This is a rather straightforward way of seeing strategy and is consequently a sound starting point for this essay. Immediately, we can identify that strategists face many challenges, and quite astonishingly, one of the first problems facing them is the lack of agreement on how to define their area of expertise. Hence, that without a universal agreement on what strategy is, strategists cannot all think of strategy in the same way. It is, therefore, hard to imagine that, without a common definition, producing strategists who comprehend fully what their job entails are easy.


Leading on from this argument, it can be seen to be extremely hard, some say impossible, to train strategists. Military strategy was believed, for a long time, to be an art that could only be understood by a military mastermind. Gray, echoing Napoleon, writes that knowledge of war can only be attained by studying war and by one’s own experience in combat . Due to strategy’s complex nature, few people can truly excel in the role of a strategist. Strategy makes demands that most people cannot regularly meet. Teaching how to devise strategy is very challenging, but becomes almost unmanageable if students are ignorant to the trials that former strategists have confronted, and what their solutions were. Even for military officers with military experience, studying the past is the starting point . There is no ignoring that as strategy is based on reason and being enacted in the real world, strategists have to know what to do, how to do it, and need to be able to actually do it. This can prove problematic. Colin Gray believes that strategy professors cannot teach their students that they are appropriate for the role of strategists, however, they can aid the education of the strategic reasoning of said students . The ever varying element of strategy is also another reason why it is complicated to teach. Richard Betts quotes that, “[s]ensible strategy is not impossible, but it is usually difficult and risky, and what works in one case may not in another that seems similar.” Hence, one can only study the past and learn from mistakes when studying strategy. Military strategists need to conquer all the difficulties discussed within this essay, which is no easy feat. It is critical to understand how to appropriately deal with a number of factors, such as friction, an intelligent enemy, uncertainty, and the complexity of strategy in order to become an effective strategist.


Proficiency in the realm of strategy demands mastery of the challenging intricacy of strategy. Strategy is complex by its very nature, every element can impact, for good or bad, all the others. Colin Gray remarks in his book Modern Strategy, that superior strategic performance is hard to achieve, let alone sustain because strategy is so multifaceted. Gray introduces 17 dimensions which are split into three categories: people and politics (people, society, culture, politics, and ethics), war preparation (economics, organisation, military administration, intelligence, doctrine, and technology), and war proper (military operations, command, geography, friction, the adversary, and time). He notes, somewhat formidably, that failure in any of the dimensions may amount to collapse for strategy . Each dimension influences the others, for that reason it is important to control all to an appropriate standard, some may be more important to control than others, but a great flaw in any one dimension can prove disastrous. When considering the first of Gray’s dimensions, people and politics, it is essential to note that people, and culture, vary around the world. For that reason, strategy must vary. A cultural dimension is always apparent in strategy as every strategist, in some way, is associated with a culture. We see this strategic dimension become apparent in the Second World War. Hitler unified the Soviet peoples by endangering their culture, therefore in due course costing him the war . Similarly, war preparation is another essential dimension. Strategy requires the use of, sometimes limited, economic resources. This economic dimension to strategy is unavoidable and complex. If not organised correctly, resources can be badly allocated, or run out completely. Strategy is a process and warrants comprehensive organisation. War proper articulates the bond between strategy and tactics. Strategy is nothing until someone enacts it. Consequently, all things encompassed within this dimension are imperative to control. The quality of command does indeed too have an effect on the success of strategy. Similarly, if strategy is not appropriate for the geography the battle is befalling in, then it will most likely fail. The obvious problem facing strategists is how to control, to a good standard, these aspects at once. Whilst many of the dimensions indeed can be controlled, with the appropriate level of preparation, such as war preparation, some others, however, can prove difficult to control, such as people and politics and war proper. Strategists are required to understand what is tactically and operationally realistic in different situations, what impact victory or failure in each situation would have on other situations, and what the long-term impact on the capability of the organisation . This complexity not only makes strategy very difficult to plan but also to maintain.


As aforementioned, war proper is one of the hardest dimensions to control when implementing a strategy, this is primarily due to the uncertainty of war. When reflecting upon why he believes strategy is difficult, Colin Gray, wrote that “strategy can fail because it may apply the wrong solutions to incorrectly framed questions because guesses about the future were not correct.” Strategy is made for circumstances that have not yet transpired, and may not ever transpire. The future has not happened yet, and therefore is very difficult to plan for. Strategists cannot always accurately conclude what the enemy will be willing to do to achieve success and what worth they will place on that success, and therefore consequently cannot be definite on how to combat the enemy to prevent extreme loss of resources and life. Uncertainty besieging the dominion of warfare is best termed as the ‘fog of war’. Introduced by Clausewitz in his book On War, he addresses war as being a “realm of uncertainty” with “three-quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty” . The usage of the lexis ‘realm’ exemplifies the continuous nature of uncertainty in warfare, it is entrenched within the disposition of war and consequently is a relentless challenge to strategists.


Today’s global security environment has been described as being the most unpredictable in a half-century . Granting, the information age has considerably contributed to the lessening of uncertainty, nevertheless, ambiguity is not wholly absent from the world of strategy. Conflicts like Kosovo illustrated to strategists that enemy intentions can remain clouded due to the fact that enemies can still deceive modern reconnaissance, and therefore uncertainty is still very much active within the world of strategy . A relentless craving for outright certainty, to avoid loss of life and bad press, within modern wars engenders a fog of its own. When we consider the nuclear threat dilemma plaguing strategists today, we see how uncertainty still poses a huge problem. Ownership of nuclear weapons undoubtedly intensifies uncertainties that decision makers during war have to overthrow. Such weapons can not only work extremely rapidly but, their ability to destroy is immense. If declared, the time to react to a nuclear-related issue would be only minutes, if not seconds. The fog of war in such a situation could be extreme, the slightest error could lead to unthinkable results. Would one respond with nuclear devices, or attempt to resolve the issue diplomatically? Such was the case in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another example of how uncertainty plagues modern strategists can be seen during the American Civil War. In 1862, Union General George McClellan was tasked with capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Despite outnumbering Confederate troops, McClellan moved his troops timidly forward. Confederate General Magruder, coated logs with black paint to look like guns and spread his troops to make then seem like a much larger force. Irrespective of his larger numbers, McClellan’s fear of uncertainty got the better of his strategic thinking. He postponed his attack and soon the Confederacy had additional troops ready. His reluctance to fight the uncertainty of strategy allowed Magruder time to find troops and reinforce his position, resulting in the Union Army losing many more soldiers then they would have done . Strategists must accept that they will not always be in possession of all the information, and will never be able to foresee the outcome of events that will occur from producing and executing their strategy. But, a good strategist would embrace this uncertainty, and attempt to challenge it. Therefore, it isn’t hard to deduce how uncertainty makes strategy difficult. By not being able to fully comprehend what will happen in the face of battle, strategists cannot always make a fully informed decision.


Relating to the anxiety caused by uncertainty, to intensify a strategist’s task, the enemy’s strategy seldom coincides with what strategists anticipate. Strategy – usually - encompasses dealing with an intelligent, and rational, enemy, and therefore difficulties arise when a strategy is incompatible with the enemy. When considering Helmuth von Moltke’s "no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy” quotation and Clausewitz's "war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale” passage, we can infer that interacting with an intelligent foe is far from simple. Clausewitz refers to the in terms of a large-scale duel which implies that war involves a rational, intelligent rival capable of countering actions and retaliating. Moltke’s quotation shows the complexity of dealing with an intelligent enemy by insinuating that battle plans may appear solid, but enemies are intelligent and therefore will work to counteract your plans. The strategy must not be invariable, if it is to prosper it must react and be reinvented upon contact with the enemy. Napoleon is an appropriate case showing the difficulty of intelligent foes facing military strategists. Napoleon won many battles due to his revolutionary, and unique tactics, but eventually his enemies began using the same attacks against him, ultimately leading to Napoleon's downfall. What contributed to victory today, may not work tomorrow, this is too often the reason for strategy failing. It is clear why the Prussians in 1806 were beaten, they had fallen fifty years behind times in their strategic thinking. Instead of adapting their methods, they were repeating old formulas . To truly succeed in strategy, one must study and improve on existing strategies in order to evade failure. However, it is very difficult to envisage and upkeep a successful strategy which fools the enemy and achieves objectives. To add to complications, enemies change. A strategy that worked well on one enemy, may not work on another. The 9/11 terrorist attacks signify a turning point in post-Cold War strategic thinking. Terrorism wasn’t a new phenomenon, even before the 9/11 attacks there had been numerous terrorist attacks, terrorism had been a major security worry since the late 1960s . Yet, 9/11 transformed universal opinion regarding terrorism and had an extreme effect on strategy. The enemy had changed, and therefore, the strategy needed to. The UK’s answer to the attacks was to produce a new, comprehensive strategy to deal with the threat of terrorism, which has proved effective in preventing a large quantity of terrorist attacks in the UK. Uncertainty is seemingly inescapable and thus is a vast problem for strategists. It stands in the way of strategists being able to make fully informed decisions and therefore makes strategy difficult to enact.


Another difficulty felt by strategists is friction. Friction accounts for the dissimilarity between how war is “on paper” and the way it actually plays out in the real world. Friction brings the challenge of unpredictable elements of chance, such as weather, mistakes, and miscalculations, which cannot be predicted. As a result, strategists must deal with these faults as they occur, as a consequence disturbing war at tactical and strategic levels. Other effects are seen on the individuals and how they form a part of the friction. Actions that strategists perform, or don't perform, are important when reflecting on the difficulty posed by friction. Panicking due to an unexpected slip up can cost you the war. Decisions must be quick when faced with friction. Friction is a significant area of strategic thought. It requires the strategist to consider the inconceivable, and plan for it. It requires adjusting to developments as they arise in the ever fluctuating theatre of war in order to attain the goals of the war. Consequently, friction is another reason why strategy is difficult. Being able to acclimate to sudden changes is hard.


In conclusion, I believe that strategists face an abundance of challenge, all of which contribute to strategy planning and enacting being extremely difficult. I believe that some of the difficulties regarding strategy can begin to be settled upon an agreement as to a definition of strategy, nevertheless, I don’t believe that all of the difficulties discussed within this essay can be entirely resolved, due to the multifaceted nature of strategy. One cannot trivialise the importance of any factors discussed within this essay, as they all individually have a great impact on the difficulty of a strategist's job. From the absurdity of a lack of definition regarding strategy to the complexity of strategy itself. When the difficulties of training strategists to deal with uncertainty, intelligent enemies, and friction is considered, it is clear that strategy is indeed difficult.



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