The Strategist as Hero

By Gray, Colin S. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

The Strategist as Hero


Gray, Colin S., Joint Force Quarterly


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With undergoverned space as its context, the purpose of strategy is to secure control of that turbulent zone. More often than is acknowledged in history books, the political and military battlespace for the strategist is, or certainly approaches, a condition of chaos. The theme of this essay is the struggle by the strategist to devise, sustain, and satisfactorily conclude purposeful behavior. There are grounds for doubt as to whether or not most strategists are heroes. However, the impediments to even adequate, let alone superior, strategic accomplishment are so numerous and so potentially damaging that there is little room for skepticism over the proposition that the strategist's profession is a heroic one.

One can photograph an army but not the strategy by which the strategist seeks to direct it. One can have paintings of Carl von Clausewitz but not of his theory. Strategy is ethereal. It can be explained and understood, but in common with love, happiness, pain, fear, or security, for example, it cannot be represented directly. Its presence or absence, as well as its quality, can be inferred from behavior as registered in the course of events, but then only if there is a plausible connection between known intention and that record. It is notable that the media, especially the electronic media, do not often try to address strategy. Rare indeed are the books on great (or poor) strategists, and the television channels that provide vicarious military excitement for armchair warriors almost go out of their way to avoid discussing strategy. When, exceptionally, strategy is the subject, the program more often than not limits its ambition to coverage of operational level effort. One must sympathize. The medium, be it print, film, or PowerPoint, has a way of commanding its subject more than it ought. And of course, one should not forget the client. Publishers can sell books about famous generals or admirals but not about little known strategists (for example, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery but not Viscount Alanbrooke, or General George Patton but not George Marshall). Strategy is a familiar word and is widely believed to be an important concept, but it is barely comprehended. Indeed, even today, it is little understood that the concept commonly is misidentified and that the word, especially in adjectival form, is misapplied.

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Unquestionably, strategy is as important as it is awesomely difficult to do well enough. The title of this essay is not a casual choice. Only rarely are medals for outstanding performance won easily. The subject truly is challenging, and the strategist's role, properly understood, is a heroic one. To be performed well, its multiple demands require extraordinary natural gifts, advantages that need nurturing by education and experience. That granted, successful strategic conduct should not be so difficult as to evade plausible explanation.

The Purpose of Strategy

De quoi s'agit-il?--"What is it (all) about?" "What is the problem?"--to borrow from Marshal Ferdinand Foch and Bernard Brodie. (1) If the strategist's most potent question is "So what?" Foch's question must be directed at strategy itself. Strategy functions as the only purpose-built bridge connecting political ends with the methods and means for their attempted achievement, most especially the military tools. While the basic function of this metaphorical bridge necessarily is to connect, say, policy and army, the purpose for which this key task is performed is to achieve some degree of control over the polity's security context. Those holding the strategy bridge are charged with the planning and higher orchestration of the policy instruments that in threat and action should impress themselves upon the bodies and minds of those who ought to be concerned by such behavior. The strategist needs to be able to influence enemies, allies, and neutrals, which means influencing minds and actions, foreign and domestic. …

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