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.
At a time when the U.S. maintains a significant military advantage over all other countries, it is seductive to think that simply applying those resources to any and all problems will cause success, but it will not. As a country, the U.S. can and must do better. One small step toward improving American strategic competence is to explicitly articulate our strategies as theories of success based on clear conceptualization of all variables and causal mechanisms.
Although war is a uniquely military activity because of the threat or use of violence, organizations that go to war share many characteristics with civilian organizations. Both have organizational structures that can either inhibit or promote the flow of information. Both have tangible and intangible strategic resources, which, if cultivated properly, may bring competitive advantage. And all organizations, whether they wear business suits or battle dress uniforms, choose some type of process by which strategy is shaped and implemented.
The ultimate question begged by these musings is to consider what effect more than fifty years of trying to implement business management models into the American military has had? Are we more efficient and monetarily lean than ever before? It doesn’t seem so. We have the world’s most expensive military, with the costliest equipment and highest operating margins. It is difficult to draw a direct causal argument, despite the apparent correlation in time, and beyond the scope of this article to do so. The argument is simply that military effectiveness is a matter that ought not to be judged by monetary value (profit or cost-savings efficiency) of the services performed, and it is thus not appropriate for business management models. More bluntly, whenever a public organization (as opposed to a private one) is so conceived the result will be unavoidably perverse.
Chess may be good to sharpen the tactical mind, but strategy requires setting conditions beyond the battlefield, identifying comparative advantages by analyzing adversarial interactions, seeking positional advantage in the physical, informational, and electromagnetic environments, and contributing efforts to achieve political objectives. By recognizing what drives our adversaries’ actions we can more accurately apply diplomacy to keep the peace, but when required out think and outmaneuver enemies in times of war. We can use tools like the Operational Variables to identify conditions and interactions, the “Five Whys” to perform root-cause analysis ensuring we are solving the right problems, and game theory to improve our strategic empathy. The tacticization of strategy must be reversed.
Strategic thinking can happen almost anywhere: in a conference room, a university lecture hall, or in the dark basement of a military headquarters. If you think about it, really anyone can do it, from a president to an Army private, from a subject matter expert to an armchair general. Although anyone can do it at any time and in any place, doing it well is neither easy nor is it commonplace.