"Monday Musings” are designed to get quick, insightful thoughts based around three questions from those interested in strategy, from the most experienced and lauded, to our newest thinkers/writers.
1 — Who had the greatest impact on you intellectually (whether through writing, mentorship, etc.)?
You can’t be an effective strategist without a robust network of friends and mentors to guide you, keeping you honest, humble, and informed. I really like this question, because it means I get to pay tribute to some of these people in my life, regardless of how well I’ve used or failed to use what they’ve taught me. So here goes…I’ll break this into three phases of life and those who influenced me before I became a strategist, guided my development as a strategist, and affect my current efforts to become a better one.
Setting the stage for a future calling: My family had the greatest impact on my early intellectual development, taking my endless "why?" questions seriously and supporting my explorations and experiments as long as I can remember. In high school, Dr. Alan Sheffer taught me the meaning of “perspicacity” when it came to research in History, and Mr. Jim Demcheck taught me more about the timelessness of the human dimension in one English class than most people learn in a lifetime. Choosing to major in humanities at the USAF Academy—where the mandatory Bachelor of Science degree also required lots of math, science, and engineering—would later prove invaluable preparation for grappling with the “art vs science” questions at the core of most strategy debates. Finally, Fr. Jim Orr and Mr. Jim McGill taught me to delve into the historical context and motivations that drove the authors of sacred scripture to think, write, translate, and interpret articles of faith in the way they did, tracing the evolution of the sensus fidelium in response to the challenges of modernity and change. It’s this same critical thinking skillset that I now draw upon daily as I pursue my own research in classical and modern strategy.
On becoming a strategist: Lt Col Dan “Tater” Ourada and Col Tim “Big’Un” Saffold were the first people to recognize my potential as a future strategist while I was working at the Air Operations Center at Hickam eleven years ago. Through their mentorship, personal example, and infectious passion for a strategic approach to airpower, they showed me that strategy wasn’t just an academic subject…it was real. All of it. (Cue the new Han Solo The Force Awakens clip, and imagine me as Finn).
Dr. Tom Ehrhard, who I also met in my PACAF days, has simultaneously been one of my greatest mentors and my severest critic. He convinced me to accept my “second commission” as a strategist with all it entails, and also to accept the reality that one must be a strategist of bureaucracy and power politics to be a strategist rather than a hobbyist. I don’t claim to have mastered those lessons…but I greatly value the candid advice.
The Naval War College’s Distance Strategy and Policy course and Professor Bud Bowie’s class on the evolution of strategic thought at the US Army Command and General Staff College were like two bright beams converging to guide me through the wilds of our field’s intellectual tradition. But the “jewel beyond compare” in my intellectual journey—and the convergence of many of the previous paths into the work I’m doing now—has been my association with the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, an association that began in 2009 and continues today. And of course, I’m heavily indebted to the online community of “Constant Strategists”—and my colleagues at Air University and the LeMay Center—who bring their passion for strategy into online discussions literally every day of the year. They generously share their inspirations, challenges, and discoveries. And, most importantly, they provide the informed, well-reasoned, and refreshingly humorous criticism that challenges me to constantly reexamine my own assumptions and biases.
Notable strategists with the greatest influence on my current thinking: It will probably shock no one in this forum that I’ve been most heavily influenced by the thinking and spirit of Carl Von Clausewitz, Henry Eccles, John Boyd, Thomas Schelling, and Colin Gray. All questioned the received knowledge of their times, and each offered a new and original synthesis that attempted to raise the bar of understanding and practicality. I think this is something we all should try to do—to the extent we can with the time we have. We best honor our mentors’ legacies by taking what they handed us and adding something new that brings us, collectively, to an even “higher level of confusion,” as Boyd once humorously remarked.
2 — What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?
Strategists seek to change the rules that don’t suit their ends…so I’ll answer this as if I were advising someone about to embark on their own journey rather than suggesting the one must-see stop on the itinerary that felt right to me. The real point of this series, after all, is in helping YOU plan YOUR journey, not nostalgically rehashing mine, right?
There are several keystone books I think particularly valuable for framing the field of strategy that will help you to find the tools, insights, and kindred spirits you’ll need for your own journey. As a great point of embarkation, especially if you’re starting from zero, I highly recommend Colin Gray’s new capstone work, The Future of Strategy. If Gray’s approach makes sense to you, keep exploring his other works, including his magisterial “strategic trilogy” described therein and Modern Strategy, which is basically Gray’s answer to the question above in book form. If you start with Gray, you’ll likely find just about everything and everyone else you need.
I also would point out two works I believe should be part of any “stranded-on-a-desert-island” strategy library: Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History and Beatrice Heuser’s The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present. These works, in combination with Gray’s, will provide both a solid understanding of how we got to where we are and the maps you need to chart your own future explorations.
I’d also like to highlight another overview work that might serve well as a starting point for those interested in strategy, and that’s Strategy in the Contemporary World. It explores many dimensions of strategy through a collection of essays from many of the heavy-hitters in the strategic-studies community.
And what you don’t find in those places, you’ll find in Dr. Everett Dolman’s Pure Strategy. I’m convinced this book has not gotten as much attention as it deserves in the community (although that is changing recently) because most works on strategy tend to start from the top down, using nation states and rational actor models as a theoretical starting point. Pure Strategy makes the case that we might be better served starting from the bottom up, understanding how we might influence processes of emergence to create “continuing advantage” rather than specific or decisive results that only present us with a brand new set of challenges even when we succeed. I think this kind of approach offers the greatest potential for real breakthroughs in our current understandings of strategy, and I see a lot of resonance in Azar Gat’s advocacy of evolutionary theory in War in Human Civilization.
3 — What do you want your legacy to be?
If I ever have a legacy, I hope it will be that I helped others find better ways to “to clarify concepts and ideas that have become confused and entangled” on their own, in the tradition of the strategists like Clausewitz and Gray who I seek to emulate with my own research, writing, and instruction. My goal is not to give people huge reading lists to somehow make sense of the world as best they can, but rather to suggest some better ways to structure and make sense of the knowledge they already have in order to better absorb even more insights in a shorter amount of time. I hope I can nudge strategic theory in a direction that is a little closer to the ways organic change really happens—and how processes of social change can be influenced—than some of the ones we favor now.
And if I fail, I hope that at least something I’ve produced helps to spur others—whether they be the seniors I advise, the students I instruct, or the professors and peers who challenge me—to find those critical bridging ideas and concepts we need to release ourselves from some of the vicious cycles we’re stuck in now. With clearer, more precise thinking, we’ll like save a lot of blood and treasure just by killing more of the bad ideas early, before they’ve had a chance to take root and spread. You might not get much personal credit for heading off a train wreck before it happens, or preventing an unavoidable one from becoming even worse, but THAT’s the kind of legacy that I’d happily take to my grave.
Dave “Sugar” Lyle is a U.S. Air Force officer currently assigned as the Deputy Director for Strategy and Concepts at the LeMay Center at Air University and currently deployed as the Director, Combined Personnel Recovery Center—Afghanistan. His duty history includes numerous AOC Strategy Division, A5, and joint/coalition strategic planner assignments. he conclusions and opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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