#Reviewing The Direction of War & Strategy: Context and Adaptation

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective. Hew Strachan. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. Richard Bailey, James Forsyth, and Mark Yeisley (Eds). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.

One definition of strategy is “the art and science of developing and employing instruments of national power in a synchronised and integrated fashion to achieve theatre, national and/or multinational objectives.”[1] Supporting this definition, these two books are valuable contemporary sources of practical examples and ideas for how civilian and military leaders, at all levels, work to harmonise policy, strategy, and operations.

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective

Hew Strachan is an Emeritus Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University. In The Direction of War, he examines the interaction of policy, strategy and operational frameworks, contending that:

Strategy is not simply reactive: its role is to direct war, and to do that it needs to interact not only with policy but also with strategic theory…. [Also] strategy is a profoundly pragmatic business: it is about doing things, about applying means to ends. It is an attempt to make concrete a set of objectives through the application of military force to a particular case.[2]

At the beginning of the 19th century, Clausewitz defined strategy as the “use of battle for the purposes of the war.”[3] Strachan notes that Clausewitz aimed to “link tactics to a wider objective and ultimately, of course, to link strategy to policy.”[4] For Clausewitz, and most European leaders until the end of World War I, Strachan contends that “strategy was the art of the commander [and the] province of generals.”[5]

After World War II, the renowned strategist J.F.C. Fuller argued that the pervasive destructive potential of nuclear weapons meant “there cannot be two forms of strategy, one for peace and one for war.”[6] Therefore, after 1945, as Strachan observes, strategy and policy were conflated in people’s minds, and “this conflation remained appropriate in the Cold War.”[7] However, with the end of the existential Cold War threat, Strachan contends:

[S]ince 1990, the United States and Britain [and Australia] have fought wars that have not been wars for national survival … [and] so the paths of policy and strategy, which were convergent in the two world wars and in the Cold War, have become divergent.[8]

In 21st Century conflicts, policy and strategy may diverge, for example through incongruent coalition goals, disparate and asymmetric enemies, and warfighting requirements including changing approaches to major combat operations, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism.[9-11] Strachan argues this divergence of policy and strategy creates confusion in the minds of national leaders in defining war and its objectives, asserting:

One of the reasons that we are unsure of what war is, is that we are unsure of what strategy is or is not. It is not policy; it is not politics; it is not diplomacy. It exists in relation to all three, but does not replace them.[12]

Strachan notes that “policy, at least in its idealised form, remains a statement of one government’s intent.”[13] War, on the other hand, is bilateral and even, in the case of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, multilateral. In other words, governments have policies which lead them into wars but, once war is engaged, those policies are shaped and changed by the actions of adversaries,  allies, partners and their own citizens.

Strachan argues “strategy is designed to make war useable by the state, so it can, if need be, use force to fulfil its political objectives.”[14] Harry Yarger, Professor of National Security Policy at the U.S. Army War College, supports Strachan’s argument, explaining that “planning makes strategy actionable … [and] in modern war, winning battles is a planning objective; winning wars is a strategic objective.”[15]

Strachan’s aspirational model of civil-military relations is where a “democratic head of state sets out [their] policy, and armed forces coordinate the means to enable its achievement.”[16] This process is iterative and known as strategy; it is a dialogue where “ends also reflect means” and where the result—also known as strategy—“is a compromise between the ends of policy and the military means available to implement it.”[17]

Stephen Wright expands on Strachan’s ideas in the following book under review, noting that “strategists are not necessarily constrained in terms of ways and means—planners usually are.”[18] Wright emphasises that the “strategy-to-planning nexus [and] the efforts of these two activities never stop,” concluding that “the strategist and the planner are two sides of a single coin.”[19]

In explaining the connection between policy and strategic/operational frameworks, Strachan notes strategy “lies at the interface between operational capabilities and political objectives: it is the glue which binds each to the other and gives both sense.”[20] While strategy may be the glue which binds, he also notes that being “located on the fault-line between policy and the operational level of war … [and with] politicians pretending that policy is strategy and soldiers focusing on operations … [strategy can be left] without a home.”[21]

In expanding the idea of strategy being left without a home, Colin Gray in Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy introduces the metaphor of the strategy bridge, contending:

If the politicians focus on ends, as they should, and soldiers are consumed with means, it is probable that no-one will be keeping open the strategy bridge that should be linking military means with political goals.[22]

Gray explains that in synchronising policy, strategy and operations—through the articulation of ends, ways and means—there needs to be a continuous, albeit unequal, dialogue between civilian and soldier. This unequal dialogue is resident in Western democracies where civilian and military leaders discuss policy, strategy and operations and civilian leaders make decisions based on best military advice.  

Providing a home or bridge for strategy is a primary responsibility of military leadership. For example, many military organisations possess headquarters with operational-level planning functions and capabilities. These headquarters develop plans providing strategy a home and create a strategy bridge back to their governments. For military organisations facing the chance, friction, and the uncertainty of war, Hew Strachan’s The Direction of War is a valuable resource to guide military leaders and planners.

Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

In continuing practical examples and ideas of how leaders, at all levels, work to harmonise policy, strategy and operations, the faculty of the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) contributed the eleven chapters of this informative book. The mission of this school is “to produce strategists through advanced education in the art and science of air, space, and cyberspace power for [US and coalition] Air Forces and their nations.”[23]

In a book relevant to military planners and leaders, Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower combines “thinking about particular strategic subjects … from classical history to cyberpower” with an illumination of “different approaches to thinking about strategy—choices that have implications beyond the profession of arms.”[24] In the opening chapter, titled “Widening the Aperture: The Quest for Strategic Understanding,” Richard Bailey explains that “each of us defines strategy differently” and, in teaching and learning strategy, “the journey is never complete.”[25] He summarises his advice for contemporary strategists as follows:

Today’s strategists must approach complex problems with an intellectual curiosity, an appreciation for the unknown, a willingness to battle their own biases, and (perhaps most importantly) respect a multitude of perspectives, all in order to widen the aperture and better understand the context of their environment.[26]

In his 2005 publication titled Pure Strategy, Everett Carl Dolman asserts that strategy as a “plan for attaining continual advantage” requires a bias for action.[27] As former US General and President Andrew Jackson once said, “Always take all the time to reflect as circumstances permit, but when the time for action has come—stop thinking.”[28]

In defining strategy, Dolman restates Clausewitz’s notion that while war has “an essential nature amenable to broad and enduring principles, such as unity of command, the character of war is in continual flux.”[29] Dolman further explains that because “times always change … it is reasonable to assert that seeking strategy is vastly more important than finding it.” He emphasises that in strategy “there is no so-called end state, no static objective to be reached in politics … strategy, like politics, never ends.”[30]

Instead, Dolman contends that strategy is best defined by its purpose. General Sir Rupert Smith concurs, writing in The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World that “in international affairs we tend to place the highest priority on what we do rather than what will achieve our ultimate object.”[31] For contemporary strategists, both Dolman and Smith recuse us from our search for strategic perfection. Both authors recognise the characteristics of strategy, like the characteristics of war, constantly change. For strategists, this constant change means developing realistic, tangible and achievable strategic goals aiming to harmonise policy objectives, strategic circumstances and operational outcomes.

As demonstrated in Western international efforts in the last 15 years to define strategic military requirements throughout the globe, fulfilling a military strategist’s advisory role supporting civilian policymakers requires leaders to “recognise there are fundamental limits to what can be known, [to] seek out conundrums—especially paradoxes—that challenge what is accepted as true … [and] plug away to identify solutions.”[31] Secretary of Defense Donald  Rumsfeld neatly summed this requirement at his 12 February 2002 “known knowns...known unknowns…[and] unknown unknowns” press conference.[33]

Finally, in his chapter titled “The Airpower Historian and the Education of Strategists,” Richard Muller provides four useful ideas linking the study of history and the development of strategic sensibilities in military officers. Muller’s ideas articulate a guide for junior leaders to begin grasping their vast professions. For many junior leaders, knowing what ideas to study is as difficult as finding the time to study and prepare for more senior and more strategic responsibilities.  These four ideas are:

  1. Instill a corporate spirit and foster awareness of [a military force’s] rich heritage.

  2. Understand current doctrine, operational concepts, organisational reforms and weapons systems.

  3. Extract useful insights from a thorough examination of previous wars, campaigns and historical events.

  4. Inculcate the ability to think in terms of cause and effect, and understand the complex interactions of personalities, contextual factors and friction through historical analysis, while "avoiding costly reinvention of the wheel."[34]

The value of Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower is its examination of how strategy should be defined and understood. The book outlines multiple approaches to sourcing, examining, and integrating strategic ideas into actionable plans which military, and other, professionals will benefit from considering.    

Major General Chris Field is Vice Director of Operations, U.S. Central Command, Tampa, Florida.The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the Australian Army, Australian Defence Force, Australian Government, or the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.

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[1] Department of Defence, Australian Defence Doctrinal Publication 7.0: Doctrine and training, Department of Defence: Canberra, 2011, glossary of terms. 

[2] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: contemporary strategy in historical perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2013. p. 12 & 113

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1976, p. 177; see also pp. 128 and 227.

[4] Strachan, Op.  Cit,. p. 152

[5] Ibid.,  pp. 11 & 15

[6] J.F.C. Fuller, The Reformation of War, Hutchinson & Co.: London, 1923, p. 218.

[7] Strachan, Op Cit., p. 16

[8] Ibid., p. 16

[9] Christopher Bassford, Policy, Politics, War, and Military Strategy, 1997 <http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Bassford/StrategyDraft/> [accessed 12 Jan 2017]

[10] Peter B. Dulniawka,  War Strategy Divergence Place Cultures on a Collision Course, US Army War College, Pennsylvania, 2012, p. 3

[11] Stratfor Worldview, Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda, 2009 <https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/strategic-divergence-war-against-taliban-and-war-against-al-qaeda> [accessed 22 January 2018

[12] Strachan, Op Cit., p. 43

[13] Ibid., p. 13

[14] Ibid.,  p. 43

[15] Harry Yarger, Strategic theory for the 21st century: the little book for big strategy, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, February 2006. pp. 4 & 54

[16] Strachan, Op Cit., p. 45

[17] Ibid., p. 45

[18] Stephen Wright, ‘Two Sides of a Coin: The Strategist and the Planner’ in R. Bailey, J. Forsyth and M. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower, Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, 2016, p. 243 & 245

[19] Stephen Wright, ‘Two Sides of a Coin: The Strategist and the Planner’ in R. Bailey, J. Forsyth and M. Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower, Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, 2016, p. 248

[20] Strachan, Op Cit.,  p. 12

[21] Ibid., p. 66

[22] Colin S. Gray, Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt?, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College: Carlisle, 2006, p. 14.

[23] US Air Force’s Air University, ‘Welcome to the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS)’, US Air Force’s Air University [website], available at <http://www.airuniversity.af.mil/SAASS/> [accessed 8 January 2017].

[24] See the US Naval Institute’s abstract at <https://www.usni.org/store/books/professional-books-sea-services/navy-textbooksprofessional-reading/strategy> {accessed 8 May 2017}.

[25] Richard Bailey, James Forsyth, and Mark Yeisley (eds.), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower, Naval Institute Press: Annapolis Maryland, 2016, p. 1

[26] Ibid., p. 4

[27] Everett Carl Dolman, Pure Strategy: Power and Principle in the Space and Information Age, Frank Cass: New York, 2005, p. 6.

[28] John Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, Random House: New York, 2009, p. 262. Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States from 1829-37. As a Major General in the War of 1812, his victories included the January 1815 defeat of British forces at New Orleans.

[29] Richard Bailey, James Forsyth, and Mark Yeisley (eds.), Op Cit., p. 6

[30] Ibid.,  p. 9

[31] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, Vintage Books: New York, 2008, p. 379.

[32] Richard Bailey, James Forsyth, and Mark Yeisley (eds.), Op Cit., p. 34

[33] Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, DoD News Briefing - Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers,  February 12, 2002 <http://archive.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=2636> [Accessed 17 Feb 2018]

[34] Richard Bailey, James Forsyth, and Mark Yeisley (eds.), Op Cit., pp. 123-215.