Teaching Strategy in the 21st Century

By Marcella, Gabriel; Fought, Stephen O. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Teaching Strategy in the 21st Century


Marcella, Gabriel, Fought, Stephen O., Joint Force Quarterly


With a good strategy, even the weak can succeed; with a weak strategy, even the strong will struggle. Strategy is, and will continue to be, the linchpin to military success. Unfortunately, professional military education (PME) does not develop strategists very well. (1) This longstanding deficiency needs to be corrected. The war colleges are the proper institutions to take on the task, even though their current approaches are more descriptive than prescriptive in teaching strategy. We need to reverse that emphasis.

The first step is to remove self-generated obstacles, beginning with the concept and definition of strategy. (2) Strategy is stratified roughly according to the major participants within each partition: grand strategy (and its scion national security strategy) is artful and the purview of kings and Presidents; military strategy, while subservient and linked to grand strategy, is more mechanical and has its roots in military science; tactics, which also stem from military science, are quite prescribed and situation-specific and belong to the military--in particular, the company grade ranks. (3) Somewhere along the line we get theater and/or campaign strategy, which we attribute to the generals and, eventually, operational art. (4)

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This partitioning is comfortable, perhaps because it is attuned to modern Western idealistic portrayals of the division of labor between civilian political and military leadership, and even between domestic and foreign policy. By the same token, it is academically appealing because it encourages independent examination by political science or military history scholars without forcing the two disciplines to integrate their research, results, or teaching.

This approach is nicely suited for teaching about strategy. However, it is not reflective of the real world and may be a dysfunctional, self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, by partitioning the definition so carefully into levels to serve theoretical or academic purposes, we come to believe that strategy is actually partitioned in that manner in the real world--and thus treat grand strategy, military strategy, theater strategy, campaign strategy, and even tactics as separate and distinct when they actually are similar and can be researched and taught by way of their similarities rather than against a backdrop of assumed divisions.

After all, in the real world of war and peace, generals are heavily involved, along with senior statesmen of the national security team, in what we have labeled grand strategy. Political leaders are similarly engaged in military strategy--one does not need a dissertation on Vietnam, Operation Desert One, Lebanon, or even the Gulf Wars to appreciate that conclusion. In the field, those lieutenants and captains who are said to be engaged in tactics firmly believe that they are developing strategy (albeit with a limited horizon)--and, if asked, might say they believe their platoons, flights, or department members are executing tactics. Indeed, in practice, every level believes (and, we think, accurately believes) that it is involved in creating strategy, subject to limits to their horizon imposed from above (and beyond). (5)

In a similar manner, the term policy has been malpartitioned, and along the same lines as the partitioning of strategy. The current use of the term eventually establishes a difference between policymakers and operators that divides, roughly, the politicians from the generals. (6) Yet in reality, "operators" do a lot of policymaking and policymakers get their hands deep into the well of operations--and each shapes the other to a great degree.

One can clear away all of the aforementioned dirt, debris, and confusion about strategy, and policy, with the following universal definition: Strategy is the art of applying power to achieve objectives, within the limits imposed by policy.

Strategy exists and is developed at every level. …

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