Leading into the Abyss? A Reflection on Strategic Failure & Great #Leadership

This spring, The Strategy Bridge examined modern military leadership. In a concise online series, The Bridge’s contributors gave us insights into the minds and musings of the likes of General Mark Welsh, General (Retired) Stan McChrystal and Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (among many others). Junior leaders also spoke out on their own views with notable eloquence. The theme of the series seems to have been developing leadership for the current and future character of conflict. It has been a masterclass, but it has been a masterclass with a problem.

As a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a student of strategy, leadership, and ethics, I am left with a deep sense of frustration and dissatisfaction as the series draws to a close. It has gnawed away at me every time I have read one of the articles on leadership in the context of the Global War on Terror. It continues to niggle away at me for much of the time I invest in reading, and thinking, about war; like an uncomfortable itch I can’t scratch. It certainly kept me shifting my weight as I read, and re-read, The Bridge’s series on leadership.

It has taken me a while to pin down what the problem is. It is not that I believe that our tactical and operational leadership over the Iraq and Afghan campaigns has been deficient; I don’t. Our soldiers, officers, and civilians have faced the most intense fighting since Korea, and they have endured the stresses admirably (with remarkably few mistakes given the corrupting nature of war). Nor do I fundamentally disagree with how leadership theory has developed from these experiences; works such as Team of Teams by Stan McChrystal are already helping develop military leaders fitter for the future challenges of war.

The problem is that all these remarkable feats of leadership have ultimately been tarnished, infected if you will, by one thing: the dramatic absence of strategy in the Western world since September 11th, 2001.

Strategy and the Value of Leadership in War

Military ethics provides a useful model to help explain this. The modern relationship between strategy, ethics, and just war traditions will be explored in greater detail in a future article, but for now it is sufficient to use the theory of just war to illuminate the claims above. 

The moral philosopher Michael Walzer argues in his seminal work Just and Unjust Wars that just war (jus ad bello) and just action in war (jus in bellum) are not necessarily interdependent. It is entirely possible to fight a just war in an unjust way. Equally the commission of an unjust war does not automatically make all actions within it unjust. This, however, cannot be a purist concept. While fighting in an unjust war does not automatically make your actions unjust, it surely undermines them: the endstate of each action remains fundamentally linked to the initial unjust ideal, motivation, or outcome. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in 1990, for example, was an act of barefaced aggression, a clear violation of international norms. Yes, there may have been actions taken by Iraqi soldiers that fall into the jus in bellum spectrum. But ultimately all these actions were fundamentally flawed, tarnished by the unethical decision to invade in the first place.

Sadly, this is a concept that can also be applied to the relationship between strategy and action in war. In the same way that the lack of an ethical justification for war can tarnish all actions within, the lack of a coherent strategy in war intrinsically compromises the actions of those involved. Eliot Cohen provides a good example of this when, in Supreme Command, he examines the strategic incoherence of the U.S. campaign in Vietnam. He describes how the crude strategic judgments of the uniformed military, mixed with the lack of appetite by political leaders to force an unwelcome strategic discussion, left hundreds of thousands of U.S. (and Australian) troops fighting in a strategic void. No matter how good their leadership, or how hard they fought, they were ultimately doomed to failure. To echo Colonel Harry Summers’ famous conversation with his North Vietnamese counterpart at the end of the war, all their successes were irrelevant.

The Global War on Terror, a Strategic Void, and Damaged Leadership

Similar to Vietnam, the decision in 2001 to declare a global, unending, and unbounded War on Terror was “profoundly astrategic." The result, manifested almost immediately, was another void of strategy, a black hole that sucked away the value from the efforts that followed. The ability to lead was particularly damaged. No one was immune. At the highest levels, senior military and civilian commanders struggled to provide any form of strategic leadership. Starting with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and continuing into Iraq, the American Joint Chiefs were increasingly marginalized by the Secretary of Defense and successive administrations. Decision-making forums broke down. Military and political leadership became compartmentalized, disconnected … and ineffective.

As the Global War on Terror continued, the void increasingly metastasized at the operational level. In Jo Brick’s piece in The Bridge’s #Leadership series, General Cantwell recounts how his ability to lead in Afghanistan was constrained by the intrusion of a political leadership made increasingly nervous by the lack of a strategic focus. More dramatic was General Stanley McChrystal’s forced resignation from his position as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2010, a stark symptom of strategic illiteracy in the environment. The distrust and contempt his staff expressed for the State Department in their comments to Rolling Stone magazine provides clear evidence of just how far the strategic dialogue had fallen. Ultimately, all of this cascaded down to the lowest level, where the impact was more decentralized but even more grave. Thousands of tactical commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, highly trained but operating in a strategic void, struggled to articulate such vital concepts as victory, purpose, endstate, and justification. These were the concepts they needed, as leaders, to give context and value to their sacrifice. The absence of these concepts was, and is, a tragedy.

Who is responsible for this absence of strategy? The sad fact is that all those who have participated in the Global War on Terror must share the blame. Politicians have certainly been central, mis-reading Clausewitz, seeing war as a simple extension of politics and ignoring its true nature, and hubristically believing their stated intentions of policy could pass for true strategy. The military also played its role, and is guilty of inflating both threats and capabilities for its own internal agendas, and fostering a conspiracy of optimism that removed failure (or even strategic withdrawal) as an option. Even the eternally well-meaning non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not immune to criticism as they were slaved to the thriving, billion-dollar industry of international aid and reconstruction funding governments used to excuse their lack of strategic thought.

The Bridge’s leadership deep dive has been highly valuable. We must continue to consider, conceptualize, and sharpen tactical and operational leadership. This has explicit and obvious value. Leadership saves lives, not only those of our soldiers but of all who are caught up in war. Leadership ensures that force is used with discrimination,proportion, and a focused aim. Perhaps most importantly, leadership is the best safeguard against the corrupting nature of war; it stops us sliding down a slick slope to barbarism. It helps prevent the My Lais and the Abu Ghraibs, the Mahmudiyahs and the Baha Mousas.

But The Bridge’s series should also be contextualized by the central lesson of the last fifteen years in Iraq and Afghanistan: that tactical and operational leadership are nothing if you cannot develop strategy. While we need great and disruptive thinkers such as General McChrystal to help us understand modern leadership, we can’t get away from the fact that McChrystal, forced to resign, was ultimately unsuccessful at the strategic level. Our efforts at leadership development must be matched, and exceeded, by a combined effort to rediscover strategy in the 21st century. We must also foster an honest discussion around the modern relationship between strategy, ethics, and the just war traditions, particularly as we face new threats (like Daesh and ‘New Generation Warfare’) that seek to exploit such ideals.  Without strategy, our jus ad bellum credentials as competent authorities with fair probabilities of success are brought into question, a clear win for any enemy seeking to manipulate a narrative.

The key to success in this challenge is cooperation. In the same way that the international security community must all share the blame for the last fifteen years, we must now all strive to work together to common purpose. Central is the reconstruction of strategic thought, ensuring that the ‘bridge’ (of which this site is a namesake) between military and political practitioners has firm foundations on both sides, supported by a common lexicon, and able to have an unequal and honest dialogue about linking ends, ways, and means. Without this all the teams of teams in the world will avail us nothing but a deep and enduring sense of disappointment.

Tom McDermott joined the British Army in 2001, and the Australian Army in 2015.  He has served in combat and staff roles in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  He is now studying strategy at the Australian National University.

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[1] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust War (Perseus Books Group, New York 1977), p. 20 – 22.

[2] Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command (The Free Press, New York 2002), Chapter 6.

[3] Harry G. Summers, On Strategy; a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Random House, New York 1995).

[4] Huw Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2013), p. 64.

[5] Ibid, p. 67.

[6] Jo Brick, ‘Leadership and the Art of Restraint’, The Strategy Bridge found at http://www.thestrategybridge.com/the-bridge/2016/4/8/leadership-and-the-art-of-restraint (accessed 18 Apr 16).

[7] Michael Hastings (Rolling Stone), ‘The Runaway General’ found athttp://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-runaway-general-20100622 (accessed 18 Apr 16).