Saturday it will be nine years. I was in Montgomery, Alabama assessing Air University’s ability to educate 21st century warriors. One of the criteria was “strategic agility.” Indeed.
Strategy is a mystery word. Other mystery words: love, resilience, courage, evil, goodness, truth, beauty and many more. These are concepts predisposed to complicated explanation and vigorous disagreement. Poets are more helpful than others in making sense of these words.
While Homer certainly did his bit, strategy does not attract many modern poets. Since 9/11 we have been offered mostly the prose of scholars, policy makers, wonks, and such. Some examples:
Worst Case Scenarios (2007)
Terror and Consent (2008)
National Security Strategy (2010)
Less exalted, I am the author and co-author of two more:
A Homeland Security Strategy for the New Administration (2008) The certificate for this website is out-of-date, but otherwise okay.
The HSPDs (2002-2009) featured here on Sunday and Monday are also intended as expressions of strategic thinking, although half the collection has been critiqued as non-strategic.
Before there was strategy there was the classical Greek stroma which became the Latin stratum. This was something spread haphazardly or scattered, as in, “The sheep are scattered across the plain.” English derives strewn from the same Greek root.
Then there was the classical Greek: agein or ago, meaning to drive, lead, bring, or organize, as in, “The dog drives the sheep toward the enclosure.”
Strategos is the Greek compound of these two words. We typically translate it as General. But more literally the Strategos organizes what is spread or scattered.
Strategy does not emerge from nothing. The ancient Strategos — and the modern strategist — begins with the landscape and assets scattered across it. Given the nature of the threat as I know it; given the resources — both strong and weak — available; given the contours of the context; and given my purpose, how can I maximize my advantage and minimize my vulnerability?
Effective strategy is innately reductionist. The benefit of strategy, if any, is almost always a matter of focus. In the midst of crisis and uncertainty an effective strategy informs half-made decisions and rash actions across the battlefield. My tactical contribution is to hold this ground… take that hill… wait until I see the signal and then move right. My individual action or restraint has purpose to the extent I understand the strategy. Knowing the strategy I can see the broader consequences of my failure or success.
In the midst of battle, strategic purpose must be as simple as possible. When the battle goes badly, as it usually does, strategy survives when it is well enough understood to allow for adaptation on the run by dozens of independent actors.
We are long past the era of decisive battles, but simplicity — perhaps elegance — of strategy is still helpful.
None of the preceding homeland security strategies are — yet — sufficiently simple, this certainly includes my own drafts. Like most great powers the very strength of the United States discourages focus and simplicity. Our many responsiblities — and our significant capacities — encourage distraction and complication.
At Gaugamela Darius gathered 100,000 or more to battle Alexander’s 47,000. The Persian King chose the battlefield and physically shaped it to his advantage. Alexander’s basic strategy was the same as his father’s: infantry defends, cavalry attacks. On this day the 25 year-old Macedonian conceived his cavalry as a wedge to overturn the King-of-King’s advantages. The concept worked and he won an empire. (Alexander’s tactics at Gaugamela were not so simple, but that further demonstrates the value of a simple strategy.)
A retired Colonel comments, “A bad goal is better than no goal.” He goes on to explain that in battle the aggressive pursuit of a strategic objective is — or should be — like a scientist’s hypothesis. It organizes the probing and sensing of complexity. The strategy facilitates tactical adaptation as the (null) hypothesis is proven. I don’t think the Colonel has encountered the Cynefin Framework, but he has applied it.
Osama is no Alexander, nor are his minions. We have not, however, found and articulated a concise strategy that effectively matches our assets to our landscape and our threat. We are scattered. We are strewn. We are in need of focus.
Strategy is nothing more than a few words — the fewer the better — mere thoughts given sound or scratched on a page. But the right words capture the moment. With well-chosen words an opportunity is perceived and claimed. With the same words resources are applied, a grave risk is repulsed, and purpose achieved.
Because the god has granted you great skill in the art of war,
you wish the same preeminence in counsel.
But you cannot claim all gifts to yourself.
To one the god has granted excellence in combat,
to one other to be a dancer, to another beauty with lyre and song,
and in the breast of another Zeus of the wide brows implants
wisdom — a lordly thing — and many profit beside him and many are saved,
one man’s comprehension can surpass all others.
Now I will tell you the way that seems best to my mind.
(Poulydamas to Hector, The Iliad by Homer 13.726-734)
Who is our Poulydamas? Where can we find him? Or has he already spoken and we have failed to listen?