Home / Articles / Winning Wars and Military Education: Crossing Both Spans of the Strategy Bridge
This essay reflects the author’s own views and does not reflect the policy or position of the Department of Defense or U.S. Government.
Does anyone remember how to win wars? One distressing aspect of U.S. foreign policy over the last 15 years has been the general lack of interest in coming to grips with the evident flaws in American policy and strategy formulation. While there have been numerous efforts by U.S. allies to identify why various policies have failed, including the Chilcot Inquiry and scholarly and objective books in the United Kingdom about British Generals and Military Strategy, examinations about why the United States has not achieved its objectives at desired costs are few. General Daniel Bolger’s Why We Lost is a rare exception.
The historian and retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich argues American generals have forgotten how to win wars. One cannot lump all the blame for strategic failure at the feet of the military. Yet, Bacevich’s point about victory is important:
Ultimately, the one measure of success that really matters involves achieving war’s political purposes. By that standard, victory requires not simply the defeat of the enemy, but accomplishing the nation’s stated war aims — and not just in part or temporarily, but definitively.
It is difficult to conclude that the United States has obtained its stated political or military aims, even temporarily, in numerous conflicts. Definitive results have been rare, but the costs of these conflicts have been clearly high. But what is the problem? Solutions must first be grounded in a solid diagnosis of the ailment. Prescriptions without diagnosis are potentially counterproductive.
Studies by RAND and others that suggest the greatest shortfall in America’s wars is the linkage between policy and strategy, what they titled strategic competency. For many years, senior national policy sessions never tightly coupled U.S. policy and strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There was a gap in what strategist Colin Gray calls the “Strategy Bridge.” There are two spans on that bridge: the connection between tactics and campaigns/military strategy (or “operational art”) and the span between strategy and policy. The latter is concerned with strategic art, and that part of the bridge is in disrepair.
This is presumably what Secretary of Defense James Mattis means when he described that the United States was now emerging from a “strategy free” era. Yet, entering a more strategically grounded era requires reflection on the shortfalls in process and understanding what led to the erosion of effective strategy development.
This problem seems to account for the strong educational component included in the recently issued National Defense Strategy. That document raised lethality and modernization to a critical component of the future defense of the U.S. But more importantly, it included direction for the U.S. Professional Military Education (PME) system. It offered general guidance about what is required to move forward. Each point is on target:
Art and Science of Warfighting. We will emphasize intellectual leadership and military professionalism in the art and science of warfighting, deepening our knowledge of history while embracing new technology and techniques to counter competitors.
AllianceRelationships. PME is to be used as a strategic asset to build trust and interoperability across the Joint Forces and with allied and partner forces.
TalentManagement. Developing leaders who are competent in national-level decision-making requires broad revision of talent management among the Armed Services, including fellowships, civilian education, and assignments that increase understanding of interagency decision-making processes, as well as alliances and coalitions.
Secretary Mattis expresses a blunt evaluation about the current relevance of PME and a general intent about the need to reform. It is not surprising that under his leadership, the National Defense Strategy includes human capital and educational reforms. He has long urged and exemplified the deep study of military history as a key element for professional development. The brief details in the National Defense Strategy summary reinforce what proponents of “a Revolution in PME” called for. Each of the three points in the National Defense Strategy are important, and each should be addressed in turn.
Art and Science of War
As Colin Gray reminds, there is more to war than warfare, and more to warfare than lethality. The solution will not be found by simply emphasizing “warfighting” in schools. However, an informal survey of faculty that I conducted in the United States found agreement about the need to inject more warfighting into school curricula diluted by regional studies and distracting non-military subjects. Army and Marine Instructors at Leavenworth and Quantico identified a clear need to expand the study of military history and major wars.
Yet, in a document that emphasizes lethality and reflects an emphasis on kinetic hardware, we should appreciate the limits of technology. As Eliot Cohen noted in his book The Big Stick, the solution to America’s hard power challenges will not reside entirely in technology acquisition. “As important as the hardware the Department of Defense buys in the next twenty years,” he advised, “will be the intellectual formation of the men and women who lead its armed forces.” He warned that tomorrow’s unpredictability would demand a broader understanding of what war is and greater focus on the future of war than today’s war colleges offer. The Secretary of Defense apparently agrees.
The need to invest in PME does not contradict the need to invest in modernization. That is certainly an acute priority today. But let’s also ensure that those modernized forces are led by Generals and Admirals fully prepared to design and execute war-winning campaigns, not just win battles. Lethality may prop up deterrence and help prevent wars, but developing the intellectual ingenuity to conceive and lead a winning strategy is a larger challenge. The policy debate surrounding the use of force and the strategic education of senior military leaders should be as rigorous and realistic as the training and kit of tactical units. The minds of senior officers need to be as sharp as the bayonets the infantry carries forth into battle. Without both, the U.S. can only expect the same unsatisfactory results.
Investing in modernization is a strategic imperative. But the priority imperative is improving the policy/strategic linkage that puts U.S. forces into harm’s way in the first place. So priority should be given to strategic leadership and what might be best termed “generalship,” while also improving the warfighting and history component at America’s schools to prepare operational leaders for battle. Embracing more wargaming in the classroom as argued by Professor Jim Lacey is also a great step forward.
The emphasis on bringing more coalition members into U.S. PME schools is noteworthy. It would be a valuable tool to increase interoperability in more ways than just selling U.S. platforms. U.S. policymakers might also want to consider that U.S. officers would gain a greater appreciation for the insights of allies, greater regional expertise, and deeper cultural and language depth, and enhanced coalition management skills by attending foreign schools. This would seem to be a far more effective broadening experience for future defense strategists than a year in Kansas or a DC think tank. As RAND noted:
More international immersive experiences would also benefit U.S. personnel, relatively few of whom attend foreign military schools such as the NATO Defense College (NDC) in Rome. In such an environment, U.S. personnel are immersed in an international community of actual and potential coalition partners where U.S. personnel are in the minority.
In a speech this year, Secretary Mattis argued that the U.S. needs to listen to its allies more, noting that the country with the most aircraft carriers is not necessarily always right. The same is true with education: the country with the most school seats does not necessarily have the smartest teachers or the best platform for learning. NATO and other U.S. allies have excellent educational programs, too. We could leverage these institutions, like the NATO Defence College, to give future leaders more exposure to foreign perspectives and challenge their mental models.
The strategy rightfully notes the need to developing leaders competent in national-level decision-making. General Robert Scales said it well:
Recent experiences in war strongly suggest that those who rise to the top of the strategic decision-making pyramid are too often poorly qualified for the task. The military isn’t short of strategic talent. The problem is that the military’s promotion and rewards bureaucracies too often fail to clear a path for the most talented to reach the top.
The military analyst Tom Ricks in his book, TheGenerals, claims U.S. operations in Iraq were “tactically proficient but strategically inept.” He defined good generalship as “measured by the time it took from first contact with the enemy for the generals to readjust their thinking to the actual conditions they face.” This is the operational side of what good generalship is about. But good generalship can also be measured by the effect that senior officers have on the illusions of policymakers and the time and success they have in creating strategies that both shape and support policy objectives coherently.
Others, like RAND’s Linda Robinson, blame both ends of the strategy bridge, concluding that educational reform is needed. She argues that “in terms of education, it is important to remedy the deficit of strategic education on the civilian side, and on the military side to develop a more realistic and less rigid concept of how policy is made as part of the military education and planning.”
Those findings are echoed in a study produced by National Defense University in Lessons Encountered. That study concluded that “the development and conduct of U.S. strategy have lacked a common understanding and appreciation for strategy among the Nation’s leaders.” This study found fault in both policy guidance and theater/ campaign plans that were not tightly linked to larger national interests and political factors—and which often did not reflect an appreciation for clear logic, costs, and risks.
U.S. PME schools do a fine job at instilling the basic fundamentals of strategy and introducing combat seasoned officers to policy and politics beyond the battlefield. But as Eliot Cohen argues,
they do not produce an elite cadre of strategic thinkers and planners from all the services and the civilian world. To do that, measures would have to be taken that would be anathema to personnel systems today: competitive application to attend a school, rather an assignment to do so as a kind of reward; extremely small class sizes; no foreign presence, or only that of our closest allies; work on projects that are directly relevant to existing war planning problems.
A strategic education involves more than just the operational art; it must prepare officers to maneuver in the strategy realm with all instruments of national power. This can only be the result of a career-long personal development effort that includes attendance at rigorous schools, deliberate career management, and mentorship. All are critical in producing strategically competent senior leaders. Additionally, U.S. defense leaders must emphasize the importance of developing critical thinking at the strategic level. This is not the focus of Command and General Staff Colleges or the superb second-year PME programs like the School of Advanced Military Studies. These programs stress campaign design and warfighting at the theater level of war. Yet, where the United States is falling short is in mastery of the art of war at the highest level, which fundamentally involves the connection between policy and the practical realities of what can be achieved by a coherent strategy. Understanding the economic and technological dimensions of war is equally important and as we become increasingly aware of the protracted nature of great power competition, issues such as mobilization and America’s innovation base will perforce rise in salience in senior education programs.
Both General Scales and Eliot Cohen propose a two-year institution that would annually graduate no more than 30 to 40 selected officers a year. This proposal would be tied to their selection as being potential strategists in Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the National Security Council, or in Regional Combatant Commands. These offices would focus on the policy-strategy linkage at the proverbial Strategy Bridge, by an intensive second-year program in “Strategic Leadership and the Art of War.” Such a program might be established at one of several outstanding civilian universities to expand the exposure to potential civilian leaders, but also could build upon existing military schools. These graduates would certainly fill a need in the joint strategy community, but the investment in education has to be carefully tied to follow on billets and new personnel policies to sustain them within a strategy community and their expertise.
U.S. strategic shortfalls will not be materially repaired by increasing the lethality of its Joint Force. It is clear that the United States can smite its enemies once they are found. As one recent veteran from Iraq’s latest campaign stated, “We have no trouble killing people, but we don’t know how to win wars.” It is time to move past the distinction that Ike Wilson once identified between gathering and learning lessons from U.S. wars. The way ahead is clear. The United States needs to promote and instill a holistic grasp of war in a dedicated community of strategists, and re-instill the art and science of warfighting.
It is imperative to ensure that the United States enters tomorrow’s wars with a clear appreciation of the political context and outcomes needed to most effectively secure U.S. objectives and obtain the better peace that is the ultimate purpose of fighting. Without sufficient understanding of what war is, at the policy level, the U.S. will continue to have issues in the uneasy and unequal dialogue of civil-military interface. Establishing good policy and defining victory is difficult but not impossible.
The United States should draw upon a generation of sacrifice to renew an appreciation for strategy and ensure that when force is applied, it serves a strategy worthy of the risks U.S. combat forces take. The U.S. should focus on achieving intellectual overmatch, not just technological superiority. The U.S. must improve on strategy education, talent management, and personnel policy to ensure that its senior officers are extensively prepared to engage and thrive in the highest levels of council where policy is established and strategy is approved. They should be equally wise about how to best apply lethal means to gain U.S. policy aims. Against great powers in an increasingly competitive era, the United States can no longer afford what Secretary Mattis called “strategic atrophy.” To gain victory in the wars the U.S. needs to win, it needs to do better at influencing policy and developing relevant strategies. The United States needs effective two-way traffic on the Strategy Bridge to ensure victory. A renewed mastery of strategic competency is the ultimate imperative.