Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Strategy as an Art and a Science

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Strategy as an Art and a Science

Article excerpt

HAVE BEEN ASKED TO SPEAK on the subject of Strategy as an Art and a Science, and it is perhaps a measure of my eagerness to return to these halls that I have accepted this assignment. It is effrontery enough that I, a civilian, should talk to this professional military audience on the subject of strategy, but that I should also do so in terms that might imply a mastery of the artistic as well as the scientific approach to the subject borders on the preposterous. I must disclaim that implication, and then proceed to try to do my best with whatever is left of the subject.

After all, a lecture title, like a book title, has the dual object of communicating some meaning concerning content and also displaying some sex appeal. It is a point of manners not to examine it too clearly for its meaning. On the other hand, it does help for the lecturer in beginning his lecture to know what in general he is going to talk about.

The first thing that occurs to me when we talk about strategy as an art and a science is that we seem to some degree to be alluding to two different eras of time. The kind of scientific approach to strategic problems represented by my own organization, the RAND Corporation-and by similar organizations associated with the Army and the Navy-dates only from World War II. Notice I said "strategic problems" rather than "strategy." Inasmuch as the latter term suggests something comprehensive, coherent, and on a level of high-policy decision, we are still far from having found out how to do it scientifically.

Nor do I wish to suggest that the approaches to strategy of the pre-World War II era were essentially unscientific. On the contrary, they were good or they were bad in the degree to which they reflected scientific values of objectivity, realism, comprehensiveness, and imagination.

Let me, however, caution you that except for some gifted individuals, who have been historically scarce-and who may or may not have had much influence on their own and subsequent times,both art and science have generally been lacking in what presumed to be strategic studies. Whether we have much to crow about now I shall leave to a later point in my talk. But we should not be deceived by our own fine words, and when we are talking about strategy either as an art or as a science we should be clear in our own minds that we mean a study as ideally conceived but only infrequently pursued.

One other distinction I must make clear at this time is that between the study of strategic theory and strategic problems, on the one hand, and the actual practice of strategy by the general or the admiral on the other. The difference is not quite as sharp as it sounds, especially now that the important strategic decisions are made not in the heat of battle but during peacetime in relatively quiet offices. Nevertheless, within the limits of my assignment, I have elected to talk mostly about theory. This perhaps betrays my own bias, for the national interest (and I am sure your own professional interest) is in the practice, not the theory, of strategy.

On the other hand, it seems historically confirmed that when theory has declined so has practice. How could it be otherwise? Generals and admirals have to learn their art somewhere, but it makes a good deal of difference whether they have been trained in an atmosphere of live inquiry about strategy or [have been] simply handed down some stereotyped axioms. The terrible example of World War I in its land phases should be enough to convince us of that. I think it is fair to say that while good theory will not guarantee good generalship, bad theory will certainly guarantee the reverse.

One of the first things that strikes the serious student of strategic thought is how small is the band of really significant contributors to the field. In the strategy especially of ground warfare, the most commanding figure by far is [Carl von] Clausewitz, who has, after all, been dead for over a hundred years. …

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