Military Theory, Strategy, and Praxis

By Kipp, Jacob W.; Grau, Lester W. | Military Review, March-April 2011 | Go to article overview

Military Theory, Strategy, and Praxis


Kipp, Jacob W., Grau, Lester W., Military Review


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I want to speak to you tonight about our effort in Afghanistan--the nature of our commitment there, the scope of our interests, and the strategy that my administration will pursue to bring this war to a successful conclusion.

--President Barack Obama, West Point, New York, 1 December 2009. (1)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA began his December 2009 address to the Corps of Cadets at the U.S. Military Academy by invoking strategy. Since the address included comments about a further increase in U.S. military deployments by 30,000 troops, few would argue that the address had no strategic content. However, that admission conceals a glaring problem. Strategy today is not what it was during the Cold War or even during World War II. There is a radical difference between strategy formulated to fight conventional wars and deter nuclear wars and that necessary to conduct armed struggle in the post-modern world. The state no longer defines the nature of the conflict in the latter case.

A review of the literature on war and military thought reveals that the authors most often cited are those of the Western military tradition with a few ancients, one or two Chinese, and a few Russian or Soviet thinkers thrown in. (2) Military theoreticians of old still hold sway in the staff and war colleges of the world's professional militaries. Western students have at least a nodding acquaintance with the writings of Clausewitz, Jomini, Du Picq, Douhet, Fuller, Liddell-Hart, Machiavelli, Mahan, and Upton. Interested students also investigate Sun Tzu. Advanced students study Svechin, Triandafilov, and Tuchachesky to appreciate operational art. Professionals need to know the foundations of their profession, and much of the old theory is still applicable. Over the last decade, in the face of the challenges posed by terrorism and insurgency, a larger community of officers has returned to examining counterinsurgency and low intensity conflict and even named the realm another generation of war, the fourth. Mao, Lawrence, Giap, and Galula are still read, but contemporary authors addressing the complexity of counterinsurgency have gained on them. These include Martin van Creveld, William Lind, Joe Celeski, Shimon Naveh, and David Kilcullen, as well as John Boyd, Deitrich Doerner, Arthur Cebrowski, and William Owens.

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An earlier theory of warfare based on the nationsat-war model emphasized the primacy of conflicts between nations and saw constabulary functions, such as countering brigands and pirates, as a necessary but secondary task. However, contemporary theory has had to give a central place to combating nonstate actors. Since 2001, with the exception of a few weeks in the spring of 2003, the United States and its allies have been making war on nonstate actors, quasi-organizations beyond the brigand or pirate status, but clearly not state actors. Their persistence on the scene suggests that in some parts of the world the Western concept of the nation-state born with the Treaty of Westphalia is under challenge. Indeed, the territory of these nonstate actors encompasses that of several states, even though they formally control little of it. (Although the agents of these nonstate actors impose their control over local judicial systems and religious practices, they carry out few functions of a state.)

This different sort of conflict is challenging the way armed forces organize, equip, and conduct themselves in the face of this threat. The introduction to U.S. Army and Marine Corps Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, notes that the publication fills "a doctrinal gap." Iraq and Afghanistan experiences drove the doctrine writers. However, as the manual makes clear, the political dimension of the counterinsurgency demands strategic as well as tactical and operational adjustments. Counterinsurgency, it seems, is a matter for the whole of government, not just the military. …

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