Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 9, 2010

On our ninth 9/11 seeking a simple strategy

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on September 9, 2010

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:

National Homeland Security Strategy (2002)

Catastrophe: Risk and Response (2004)

The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation (2007)

Worst Case Scenarios (2007)

Terror and Consent (2008)

Quadrennial Homeland Security Review (2010)

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A Homeland Security Strategy for the New Administration (2008) The certificate for this website is out-of-date, but otherwise okay.

Resilience: The Grand Strategy (2010)

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?

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Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Natural, accidental, and intentional risks

September 9, 2010 @ 4:39 am

[…] Immediately above this post I address the role of strategy in homeland security.  I approach the issue abstractly (even pedantically). Below are some late Wednesday news reports that situate the need for strategy more concretely.  […]

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 9, 2010 @ 7:19 am

Well I could argue more compellingly for no effective strategy for long term or short term than the converse. Extract below from post:
“We are long past the era of decisive battles, but simplicity — perhaps elegance – of strategy is still helpful.”

Personally I view the 9/11/2001 attacks as decisive and in fact while the US struggles with the consequences still, AQ achieved far more than they have been given credit for. If you view Homeland Security investments and expenditures as a net drag on the economy not in fact of building real sinews of preparedness that was certainly achieved. It is interesting that FEMA now for the first time in its histroy has a real economist examining the economic aspects of its regulations and housed technically in its Office of Chief Counsel. I still view the published AQ estimates of direct and indirect costs imposed on the US economy by the 9/11 attacks as much more realistic than those even by published academics. Recently of course all efforts to in fact analyze opportunity costs of the investment of homeland security funding in other governmental or private endeavors had almost completely ended. Obviously of interest to DHS and its contractors to seldom weigh the alternatives of its investments. But then there are the political costs of a beating the war drum strategy for both US foreign policy and foreign relations. What will the investment in Iraq look like a decade down the road? Will Iraq even be a large secular state in the ARAB world?
And what of efforts to integrate newly arriving populations in WESTERN Europe and the nation-states of North America? I have seen the continued decline in educational standards at almost all levels in the US since 9/11 including language and cultural training even for those charged with the official interface of the US with the world, military and civilian. I have seen the decline in income equality which appears to be a factor in homegrown terrorism? I have seen failures in WMD efforts, Cyber Security, and Domestic Intel with the latters complicated tradeoffs of privacy and civil liberties. All of this leads me to conclude that neither the Congress or Executive Branch gets “it” with “it” being a real strategy for the rest of the century to deal with the collapse of the nation-state system and its ability to deal with the rise of the technological prowress of non-state actors to destroy the lives and property of innocents. This threat is in fact the “it” that needs addressing whether by those who develop, implement, operate or regulate technologies that if abused by individuals can lead to large-scale catastrophic impacts and consequences, both economic and political. Again I propose the 112th Congress however led by political party create a new JOINT Committee on HOMELAND Security with major subdivisions interested in WMD issues, Cyber issues, Domestic Intel issues, and more coordinative skills with respect to how Congress deals with foreign policy and foreign relations issues that impact Homeland Security and the same for DOD and DOJ activities that involve the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement. Time for some brain power and nuance if we are to survive as a democracy (Republic)!


September 10, 2010 @ 5:09 am

Strategy does not emerge from nothing.

Valor before everything, which is a good place to start. You can’t teach strategy. I’m besieged with computer problems.



September 10, 2010 @ 5:22 am

“In spite of its academic nature, the copious details to be found in the treatise rendered it of the highest value to the army organizers of the 16th century, who were engaged in fashioning a regular military system out of the semi-feudal systems of previous generations. The Macedonian phalanx of Aelian had many points of resemblance to the solid masses of pikemen and the squadrons of cavalry of the Spanish and Dutch systems, and the translations made in the 16th century formed the groundwork of numerous books on drill and tactics.”

Don’t let the academic nature get in the way of your learning. If you know the drill, you know it. To aim for less is to be less than serious, so Aim High. This is going to be serious fun on high. Thanks Tactical Wing!

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 10, 2010 @ 9:45 am

Society seems to have rejected the notion of the mass armies of the state created by Napoleon and gone back to drill. Why? Costs? Benefits? Revulsion with meat grinder tactics? Even the deaths of suicide bombers appear to be designed to be effort at collective impact by individual decisions. Can that be successfull?


September 11, 2010 @ 5:03 am

I’m point man on this mission and we need to eliminate no point man. They’d toss the kids in the meat grinder and call it a political happy meal if we let them. I’m besieged with computer problems on this end. The old Rockwell drill still works. Need a hole? Get a new Chinese drill and be unsuccess full of bull. The eggs are going to make eggs to make shots for the kids to learn Spanish. PBS is on the blink!


September 11, 2010 @ 5:11 am

I’ll sell you $70 million in losses for a dollar Cumming and you can be a magazine tycoon. You can call it Newsweak and mail it to guys on submarines who sub scribe. It might get wet as work is known to get. Business is drying up and it’s like watching paint dry. Have the kids finger paint or something today.


September 11, 2010 @ 5:29 am

Simplify simplify and fly See-130’s. Some beach as always. Oil and washing a shore. They’re all washed up now. Always dig out, never dig in point men.

“The point of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other poor dumb bastard die for his” -Patton

They’re going to die for their religion. A different kind of war, so be kind and keep digging out. PBS still on the blink. Put a sledgehammer through the TV and keep blowing up the video. Just don’t try blowing up Fort Knox. That’s when the heavy bombs start falling. Rough stuff and people are going to die or get hurt. All kind of looks the same to me. Watch for no trespassing signs next time. If you aren’t dead before the next time. Little lost sheep.

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