The Accidental Strategist

By Collins, John M. | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

The Accidental Strategist


Collins, John M., Joint Force Quarterly


I wouldn't be the person I am today, I wouldn't be where I am now, and I may not even have been here if it wasn't for the accident.

--Rick Allen, drummer for Def Leppard

Joint Force Quarterly has devoted a great deal of ink to strategy and strategists in recent issues. This has occurred against a background of evolving allied strategies in South Asia as well as academic criticism of the quality of strategic thought in the U.S. Armed Forces. Strategists might be born, but it is indisputable that they can be trained. Pure serendipity introduced me to the field four decades ago, and strategy has retained my attention ever since. My introductory experiences in the field led to unforeseeable opportunities and ultimately to four imperishable lessons precipitating career-shaping advice for aspiring strategists today.

Introduction to Strategy

Immediately before I left for Vietnam in June 1967, I told the National War College (NWC) deputy commandant, "You need me," and he countered, "We need you like we need another thumb." Fortunately for me, someone on the faculty must have died because subsequent orders made me a faculty member when the next class convened in August 1968.

It had been many years since a military faculty member had delivered a formal lecture at the War College when Army Lieutenant General John E. Kelly, the commandant, for reasons that remain obscure, invited me to compare Arab military capabilities with those of Israel soon after my arrival in 1968--perhaps because I had attended a summer seminar at American University Beirut 16 years before as an Army captain.

I offer a few snippets from that presentation so you can sample its flavor.

Thirteen centuries ago a handful of wild-eyed Bedouin boiled out of central Arabia on their way to immortality. Within 9 years of the Prophet's death, this rag-tag mob destroyed the 1,200-year-old Persian Empire and drove Byzantium to its knees, a feat roughly equivalent to the simultaneous defeat of the United States and Soviet Union by the Students for a Democratic Society. They accomplished that miracle without experienced generals or logistical support, but spilled over into the Punjab, swept all of North Africa, and battered the gates of Western Europe until Charles Martel stemmed the tide at Tours in 732 AD.

Fast forward to 1948, when tiny Israel, armed mainly with a John L. Sullivan complex, stymied all Arab states, who had lost their martial spirit and sense of cohesion. Arrogant Israelis, like the Boston Strongboy,

still offer to whip any sonofabitch in the house, and from the looks of Arab opposition, they can do it. How did they get that way? Let's first see where they spawned their key leaders, starting with Orde Wingate, a latter-day Gideon with a talent for unconventional warfare to whom the Lord said, "Go in this, thy might, and thou shalt save Israel." His disciples included Moshe Dayan, then-Chief of Israel Defense Forces, who admitted that Wingate "taught me and many another Israeli Soldier everything we know."

And so it went. Smitten by my presentation, General Kelly stated, "You now are Director of Military Strategy Studies." My response was, "Sir, I can't even spell strategy," to which he replied, "Neither can anyone else. Go make a name for yourself." That challenge changed the rest of my life. (1)

Initial Strategic Experiences

My first NWC military strategy syllabus taught me more than it taught students because, unlike any other course director, I wrote a brief introduction to each of the 19 topics, then posed a series of questions to guide intellectual investigations. The table of contents opened with the fundamentals of military strategy and nature of modern war across the board, followed by threats, military strategies during the incumbent Nixon administration, implementing force postures, and a quick look at the impact of science and technology. …

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