“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.)?
This may not be the most original answer, but I suspect the one person who had the greatest impact on me intellectually was my father. I know he read Sun Tzu; I believe he read Clausewitz but we never discussed it. I don’t think he ever read Jomini, Mahan, Wylie, or Corbett. But from my earliest memory his was the Socratic voice in my head that always paid me the compliment of intellectual equality and demanded more — read, challenge everything, read, take a position and defend it, read, learn something new every day and worry about its utility later, and then read. I suspect this voice is the reason I’ve read these and others. It isn’t as if there haven’t been more recent intellectual inspirations and mentors, but his will always be the most impactful. I may be rambling a bit, but this leads me to wonder whether the systematic creation of strategists or critical thinkers is even possible in a world where we do not intervene in the earliest stages of the intellectual development of a military ruling class. If Aristotle is right — if “virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions” and if it is true that “not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy” — I wonder if the teachings of our youth are not far more valuable that the teachings of professional military education. I wonder if the problem shouldn’t become one rather of identification rather than inculcation. I also wonder if I’m not privileging my own experience inappropriately, though, so grains of salt are warranted.
2 — What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?
And since my father taught me to question everything … I wonder if perhaps the second interrogative isn’t problematically framed. The notion that a single work can explain strategy assumes a Platonic notion of strategy toward which we grasp, but I suspect such a perfect form doesn’t exist. Having made such a claim I suspect there are those who will accuse me of having read too much Keegan, and they might be right, but presuming we all mean the same thing by the word “strategy” seems a stretch. Of course, I may also be grasping at any argument to avoid making my own Sophie’s Choice, so I’ll answer the question. If I could only read one book with the word “strategy” in the title (or as the nominal subject), Dolman’s Pure Strategy tops the list. As a work of pure theory, its lens is sharp, synthesizing understanding of the best (and other) theorists with modern science, while proposing profoundly original ideas and a notion of strategy I find especially compelling (and rare among strategists). This book made a difference in my intellectual life.
3 — What do you want your legacy to be?
Perhaps not so strangely, the answers above point directly to my simple answer to the third question and the legacy I would like to have left when I shuffle off this moral coil. When my life’s walking shadow has fretted his last hour upon the stage, I hope my tale signifies more than nothing. I hope that I have made a difference, and I hope at least one person views the world differently for having known me. I might wish for more, but with this I will be satisfied.
Eric Murphy is a mathematician, operations research analyst, and strategist for the United States Air Force. The 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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