Strategic Thought and the Military Officer

For military officers, strategic thought is a subset, along with tactical and operational thinking, of their roles as organizer, planner, and warfighter. However, strategic thought is distinct from the other forms of thinking in which officers must engage by virtue of its much greater complexity. It is also the way of thinking that most requires the officer to be self-conscious, or metacognitive, and in effect to distance herself from the kinds of thinking required for the tactical and operational levels of war at which she normally functions. In its complexity of ways, means, and ends, strategy is more than just another level of war. Perhaps this is why the record of strategy is so marked by error and failure. Failure in war is most often a failure of strategy. For the officer, this means all the effort, sacrifice, and success at the tactical and operational levels may well come to naught because of a flawed strategy. In this article, I will consider the nature of strategic thought and the officer’s role in it to determine why this is so, and what is to be done.

Of all levels of armed conflict, strategy is most concerned with complex ends and long-term effects difficult to plan and foresee. For the strategist, war is the irrational in the service of the rational: force, or the threat of force, in the service of policy. As the theorists Deleuze and Guattari note, the so-called war machine is not an efficient instrument, but an unlikely fusion of competing opposites. No single state owns the war machine, which is not complete until two (or more) armies come into conflict. If war is a machine, it operates like a car in which one person steers while another (his deadly enemy), works the brakes and gas pedal! History, to include recent U.S. history, is full of examples of military victories, deterrence, or dominance that had ambiguous results. Even the Allied victory in World War II, although it is considered one of the most important and decisive in history, destroyed three militant and acquisitive empires to set the stage for the expansion of a fourth. On the other hand, the Soviet Union created enormous conscripted armed forces and won victories by proxy all over the world, but none of this prevented either the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. or the receding of the international communism of which it saw itself as the standard-bearer.

The Nature of Strategic Thought

Tactical and operational thought are personal and tribal. Officers leading at these levels are often in direct contact with the people doing the fighting, and they are subject to the conditions of the battlefield or theater of operations. Tactical and operational thought are conducted within the tight-knit tactical unit or in a staff among officers who, even if they are of different services and nationalities, often share a similar perspective and vocabulary. Strategic thought, on the other hand, is bureaucratic. It requires bureaucratic resources, is performed by bureaucracies, and often exhibits the good and bad traits of bureaucracies in general. Strategic thought and planning are less tribal than tactical and operational thought, because strategy is influenced and conducted by non-tribal civilian academics and government officials. Further, it is less personal, because it is conducted at a considerable remove from the troops and scenes of conflict. Strategic thought is bureaucratic in the sense that it is conducted by hierarchical, rule-bound, expertise-driven, standing organizations that meet the criteria on which sociologists generally agree. The term bureaucracy and bureaucrat have devolved into epithets, an evocation of the worst traits of bureaucracies and of organizations in general, particularly those of government. Nevertheless, as the early 20th Century sociologist Max Weber noted, bureaucracies are in most senses preferable to the kinds of hereditary, ad hoc, and unregulated mechanisms of policy that came before. While some innovative organizations, mostly in the private sector, have begun to adopt forms of organization that depart from the model laid out by Weber and his successors, for example by becoming less hierarchical, the organizations dedicated to military strategic planning and execution tend to follow the traditional model. Strategic thought takes place in a variety of venues, from the war colleges and other service schools, to civilian academic institutions, to a multiplicity of think tanks. Actual strategic planning is focused on the service branch headquarters, the major regional and functional combatant commands, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Defense Department.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff and several combatant commanders, 1 July 1983. (Defense Visual Information Center/Wikimedia)

The bureaucratic nature of the military establishment can be an impediment to clear strategic thought. A much-read and detailed account of poor strategic thought (which was perhaps intensified by a lack of moral courage) is H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. In McMaster’s account, service rivalry and careerism contributed to flawed policy and a lack of strategic direction. Strategic direction in Vietnam was guided by complex forces that inhibited clear thinking. In The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, Leslie Gelb and co-author Richard Betts present a nuanced argument concerning strategic failure. To briefly summarize, they argue the civil and military bureaucracies of the federal government, realizing victory in Vietnam was probably unlikely, nevertheless fell into line, reluctant to damage their credibility through resistance or half-hearted efforts. The bureaucracies that create strategy to support policy have the vices of their virtues, which are efficiency and unity of effort. They can implement policy, but they usually do not make or undo it. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the military bureaucracy moved from extreme caution to commitment concerning operations in Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs at first considered the region relatively unimportant, and they warned that effective intervention would likely require a confrontation with China. Nevertheless, once the decision was made that the perils of disengagement outweighed those of commitment, all doubts were suppressed, even in the face of growing evidence the war was unwinnable. As a prescription, the authors of The Irony of Vietnam call for pragmatism over policy and doctrine (and, it might be necessary to add, ideology) in decision-making at the foreign policy and national security level.

Officers as Strategic Thinkers

The officer functions as strategist in one of three roles: as commander, as staff officer, and as adviser. Most officer-strategists are staff officers. Among commanders, only the very senior, at the three- or four-star level, are usually considered to be functioning as strategists. Although junior, tactical leaders should also understand strategy. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior American unformed officer, is the president’s principal military adviser. Officers’ strategic roles may appear to be straightforward and well-delineated by statute and table of organization, but they are in fact defined by personal, cultural, and organizational factors. Strategic thought involves and often demands a multiplicity of voices, of competing concerns and outlooks. This often-discordant chorus can both inform and impede the strategic process. At times strategic thought and direction, overwhelmed by competing demands, has come to a halt, opening a fatal gap in the transmission of policy into military action. This breakdown often leaves operational, and in many instances even tactical commanders the task of wrestling with strategic issues that should have been worked out for them. In these cases, officers can become strategists by default, the task of strategic direction having been abdicated by those above who were nominally entrusted with it. Historical examples of this failing are almost too numerous to mention. The example of Vietnam has already been discussed. Korea may offer another. U.S. strategy regarding Korea turned quickly from indifference to commitment to World War II-style decisive victory. Shaped by the experience of victory in the recent war, it took U.S. planners some time to acknowledge Korea was a different kind of war in which there might be a different kind of victory. Sometimes absent clear strategic guidance, commanders in the field from MacArthur to Van Fleet flirted with and sometimes danced attendance on the idea of decisive victory, reuniting all of Korea at the point of the sword, and punishing or even openly warring with mainland communist China. Aiming sometimes for victory, the U.S. and its allies achieved stalemate, or status quo ante bellum. It might be useful to contrast Korea with Vietnam, a war shaped by the previous experience of Korea, in which aiming at a stalemate produced defeat.

Brigadier General Courtney Whitney, General Douglas MacArthur, and Major General Edward Almond observe the shelling of Incheon from the USS Mount McKinley on 15 September 1950. (U.S. Army Photo/Wikimedia)

The tendency for American strategic direction to be hazy and ad hoc continues into our own time. In “National-Level Coordination: How System Attributes Trumped Leadership,” Christopher Lamb and Megan Franco depict a process for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that turns out consensus strategy documents that are largely ignored, leaving real strategy in the minds of a few senior officials, with implementation largely a guessing game by those on the ground.[1] Important questions regarding the nature of the terrorist threat and the priority given to nation-building were left unanswered, to be improvised or intuited by those in the field.

Officers are expected to be professionals and the experts on military strategy, but Georges Clemenceau’s statement that war was too important to be left to generals still resonates. It is the means of war which is officers’ area of expertise, not the ends, and this fact suggests an incomplete grasp of the ends limits even their understanding of how the means should be employed. The officer, by her training and experience, will often stop at the military victory, with insufficient thought or preparation to securing the peace. This predilection was arguably played out as the Allies approached victory in World War II, when large sections of Europe were left to Soviet control, in the difficult Civil War Reconstruction, when the freedom of many ex-slaves was rendered almost nominal by a revival of racist policies in the southern states, and most recently following the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The matching of military strategy to policy presents a paradox. Officers (especially those at the strategic level) are expected to be politically literate and even sophisticated, but not politically involved or motivated. In effect, the respect of the civilian leadership and the public for officers as strategists rests on their expectation that officers’ expertise and code of honor will see they render well-considered advice that is neither partisan nor self-serving. Of course, it may be both, as well as simply and honestly wrong, because officers are human, subject to their limitations and sometimes to outside pressure. Interpersonal and inter-agency relations have a strong influence on the development of strategy, and so may the consensus or laundry-list approach that sometimes seems to be encouraged by doctrine and the bureaucracy.

The military strategist looks up and down. He implements policy and also creates the conditions for success on the operational and tactical level. Part of the work of the strategist falls within the officer’s role as organizer, under training and force planning, but the strategist is also a warfighter. Working at a greater remove from the fighting, he is also expected to think across a broader area, even the whole of earth, and a longer expanse of time. In focusing on the fight, strategists must always consider the position at the end of conflict, of the moment when the fighting ends and the long denouement begins, as the armies return home, reduce in size, change from waging war to keeping peace, as rebuilding begins and the political map is redrawn.    

A Complex Environment

Strategy provides an illustration of one of the abiding themes of modern thought, which is that the relationship among things and persons often counts as much or more than the characteristics of the things themselves. From relativity, psychiatry, and existentialism onwards, persons, political bodies, ideas, and events have been seen to be defined by how they interact. The challenge of strategic thought may be expressed as the attempt to bring antagonistic elements into agreement. The paradox of military strategy is the means are violent, inherently unsettling, as likely to inflame antagonism as to extinguish it, or to only temporarily quell antagonisms, leaving the real cause untouched and as ignitable as ever. Not only is strategy dependent on the relationship of opposing forces to one another, of force to the geopolitical landscape and to policy, but the production and execution of strategic thought is also based on many relationships among individuals and organizations, from small departments to nation states, non-state actors, and other international organizations. The officer-as-strategist must navigate in this complex social and political terrain in which perceptions of commitment and credibility count as much as the inherent merit of plans and ideas. Even the most brilliant plan, lacking necessary support and imaginative and determined execution will fail to be adopted or will simply fail. To accept and execute the best strategy, there will often have to be learning, new ways of thinking, the overcoming of habits and even of allegiances. Strategic thought often involves the overcoming of narrow or parochial loyalties in favor of a broadly national, global, humanitarian outlook.        

The political and pragmatic aspects of strategy must never be confused with moral relativism. It is a challenge for every officer, especially given the sometimes-brutal nature of her calling, not to lose sight of the precious things she serves and guards. Whatever role they occupy, the credibility and authority of officers continues to depend on their being persons of honor.


What can be done to improve the contributions of officers to strategic thought? The solutions are both structural and cultural. On the structural level, militaries should consider adopting some of the non-hierarchical organization of some businesses and becoming less rigid and authoritarian. This may appear anathema to military ideas of discipline and command and control, but real discipline is more a matter of compliance than compulsion. The military must do a better job harnessing its own brain power. The rigidity of military organizations is responsible for some of the so-called brain drain among some of the brighter junior officers and non-commissioned officers.[2] They see weary years ahead before their ideas can have much impact, and so are seeking occupations not so tied to mere seniority.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey speaks with West Point football players in the locker room after their win over Air Force in West Point, N.Y., on Nov. 3, 2012. (TSgt Bradley C. Church/DoD Photo)

The cultural changes are more numerous and important. A military culture stressing brain over brawn would help to create an atmosphere for better strategic thinking. This might include diminishing the fetishization of athletics at the service academies, for example. We should not reduce physical standards, but we should consider the evaluation and recognition of mental achievement to match. Currently, professional military education seems to be getting poor grades for the development of strategic thinkers.[3] A more rigorous and reflective approach to professional education is part of the solution, but the military should also consider sending more officers (and some enlisted members) to graduate school to earn degrees in fields like history and the humanities.[4] These fields can prepare officers to think in the ways required of strategists, to grasp ends as well as means, to consider history and the future as well as the present and immediate effects.

The pursuit of strategy is a grand drama of epic and tragic proportions. It requires an historical perspective, human and ethical understanding, a poetics of war as much as doctrine. Military officers literally invest their lives in the pursuit of victory. They must also invest in the intellectual capital that make strategic success and victory attainable.    

Reed Bonadonna is a former infantry officer and field historian in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has a doctorate in English from Boston University and was the Director of Ethics and Character Development at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. His book, Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence, was published by the Naval Institute Press in May, 2017.

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Header Image: ROTC Joint Service Brigade Commissioning Ceremony at Cornell University, 2016. (Chris Kitchen/Cornell University Photo)


[1] Richard D. Hooker and Joseph J. Collins Eds. Lessons Encountered: Learning From the Long War (Washington: National Defense University Press, 2015), pp. 168-169.

[2] There has been much writing on this subject over the last fifteen years. One of the most extensive and influential contributions to the literature of military retention is Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) by ex-Air Force officer Tim Kane. Kane calls for radical changes in the military personnel system and military career patterns to keep and cultivate the brightest and best.

[3] War Room. Online. “Whiteboard: How Well Does the Army Develop Strategic Leaders?” June 25 2018.

[4] See Christopher D. Miller, “Creating the Force of the Future,” interview with Brad R. Carson, Acting Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness). Journal of Character and Leadership Integration, Volume 3, Issue 2, Winter 2016 Special Edition, “Leading in the Profession of Arms.” Carson laments the small and diminishing number of senior officers with advanced degrees in areas like literature and military history. See also Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli and Major Stephen Smith, USA, “Learning From Our Modern Wars: The Imperatives of Preparing for a Dangerous Future,” Military Review, September-October 2007, pp. 2-15. Chiarelli observes that, despite his numerous “muddy boots” assignments, “the experience that best prepared me for division and corps command in Iraq was the 5 years I spent earning as masters degree and teaching in the Social Sciences Department at the U.S. Military Academy.