A Vision So Noble

That’s what presidents are for!

(Why is 'planning' not the same thing as 'strategy'?)

Daniel Ford, Short Essay, Fall 2008

I'm not convinced that Strategy is entirely distinct from Planning, as I understand the question. The easy answer would be something on the order of ‘Strategy is art, Planning is science’; or perhaps ‘Strategy flows from the genius of the commander; Planning is the application of established rules by lower-order staff officers’. But I’m not happy with a dichotomy.

To me, the two seem entwined: rather than an either/or, Strategy and Planning are the first two terms in a dialectic. As Hegel reminds us, 'every abstract proposition of understanding, taken precisely as it is given, veers around naturally into its opposite'. [1] So it is with Strategy and Planning: stare at either one long enough, and it turns into the other. Perhaps this is what Edward Luttwak means when he describes a ‘paradoxical logic’ in which ‘a course of action … will tend to evolve into its opposite’. [2]  He is ostensibly speaking only of Strategy, but his immediate example has to do with the deleterious effects of a successful advance upon the victor—effects that ought to have been addressed in the Planning stage.

Certainly Clausewitz wouldn’t have made that mistake.  ‘In war,’ he writes, ‘the will is directed at an animate object that reacts’, obliging us to think of the ‘war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next’. He also, in a formulation that I particularly admire, speaks of ‘the fermentation process known as war’. And finally, he tells us, ‘war should … be conceived as an organic whole whose parts cannot be separated, so that each individual act contributes to the whole and itself originates in the original concept’.[3] 

Clausewitz defines Strategy as 'the use of the engagement [i.e., battle] for the purpose of the war'. But then, on the very same page, he goes on to tell us: 'Strategic theory, therefore, deals with planning....'[4] He’s not entirely consistent in this, however: earlier, in Book Two, he distinguishes between ‘the completely different activit[ies] of planning and executing [the] engagements themselves, and of coordinating each of them with the others’—the first being Tactics and the second, Strategy.[5] What we have here is not a duet but a trio, though singing a tune rather different from the Trinity usually meant in the study of Vom Krieg: passion, friction, and reason as three 'magnets' tugging at the course of the war, first in one direction, then in another.[6]

The dialectic of Operation Iraqi Freedom

For example, the 2003 invasion of Iraq might be cast in trinitarian form as follows:

1) George Bush declares his Zweck[7] or Purpose in going to war to be regime change in Iraq, with other trimmings.

2) The president’s political aim is cast in military terms—i.e., as Strategy—by Donald Rumsfeld, Tommy Franks, and no doubt others. (The day is long past since Napoleon served at once as emperor, general of the army, and field commander, though that was Clausewitz’s assumption: ‘the strategist must go on campaign himself’, a pleasing but now impractical requirement.[8]) We might summarize their Strategy as aerial 'shock and awe' upon Baghdad followed by a 'run and gun' up the banks of the Euphrates—relational maneuver, in short.[9]

3) General Tommy Franks hands these tasks to his staff to be fleshed out in detailed Plans for the conduct of the war’s first weeks.

That the process was flawed—‘a conception of war in which the enemy’s entire creative energy and will of self-protection were ignored’[10] –does not alter its trinitarian nature. Hegel might have seen this trinity as the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of the war’s opening stage. And he might go on to argue that the Plans thus arrived at became the war’s new thesis, which in turn must evoke its own antithesis. General André Beaufre explicitly speaks of a dialectic in war, though he locates it in Strategy and ‘two opposing wills’[11], so that the US stands as thesis, Saddam as antithesis, and the war’s outcome as synthesis—skipping the whole point of Hegel, it seems to me. I am more inclined to appoint the Enemy as the new antithesis, leading to a synthesis in Operational Art, which is challenged in turn by Battle, and the two perhaps brought together by Tactics. Alas, I only rose through the ranks to Specialist 4th Class, a corporal who can't give orders; what commanders do in battle is literally above my pay grade.

Problem: spiral or circle?

In any event, Hegel and Clausewitz have a fundamental disagreement: the Hegelian dialectic spirals forward, while Clausewitz’s bends back upon itself. As Colin Gray writes: ‘Although it is apparently sensible to [view this process as] a descending hierarchy, … there is a strong argument for regarding these realms as substantially interdependent’.[12]

John Stone points out that Operation Iraqi Freedom failed to consider 'the plight of the people who were destined to experience invasion and the decapitation of their state', causing the US to create 'larger problems than those they have solved'.[13]  What appeared at the time to be one of the most astonishing victories in the history of air-land warfare turned out to be only the beginning of a much more challenging war. ‘In War,’ as Clausewitz warned, ‘the Result Is Never Final’.[14] Philip Windsor expresses this very nicely: ‘Brilliant victories are not necessarily very useful in themselves ... victory is only victory when one party agrees to lose’.[15] The Americans won hands-down in April 2003, but neglected to convince the fedayeen, Republican Guard, and Sunnis generally. As a result, the Iraq war itself became an illustration of the Hegelian dialectic: war conducted as relational manoeuvre resulted in a quick victory; only to have that victory morph into insurgency, and insurgency into David Petraeus ….

So what are we to make of the caution toward the end of the Unit that Strategy may have lost its meaning? The poster prof for this view is Hew Strachan, speaking of an 'existential crisis' for Strategy: 'The word "strategy"’, he complains, ‘has acquired a universality which has robbed it of meaning, and left it only with banalities'. True enough, but this is really nothing new, as Luttwak points out with his derision of the ‘unfortunate terminology’ of strategic and tactical air power in World War 2—a ‘hideous misnomer’, in Colin Gray’s more picturesque phrase.[16]

Death in the Forest: who murdered the prisoners?

To be fair, Strachan traces Strategy's difficulties back to the Cold War and indeed almost to Clausewitz's day. Still, like Stone, he seems to take the Bush administration as his particular point of departure: 'It used words like prevention and pre-emption, concepts derived from strategy but without context.’ Worse, it not only appropriated the generals' language but ignored their opinions: 'professional service opinion ... often seemed marginal at best and derided at worst'.[17]

Well, and what of that? Lincoln fired General McClellan, Truman fired General MacArthur, and historians applaud both presidents for their wisdom. Ignoring professional opinion is a national leader's prerogative—his duty, indeed, if he thinks best. That’s why he’s president! With the advantage of hindsight, we know (as Stone and Strachan did not) that Bush at the end of 2007 would again ignore his generals and order a troop increase and change of (dare I say it?) strategy in Iraq. The changes he thus set in motion would succeed to a degree that a war critic would marvel: 'It's the latest, greatest comeback in American military history, perhaps since the Civil War'.[18] In other words, since Lincoln fired McClellan.

To be sure, Planning (Zeil) is not the same thing as Strategy, nor is Policy (Zweck). And politicians and journalists have indeed appropriated Clausewitz's language and done him a bit of a disservice thereby. But if Bush in 2003 was foolish to overlook the role that local passions could play in a 'liberated' Iraq (or Afghanistan, for that matter), we can be thankful that he did not learn the obvious lesson from his mistake: that in 2007 he should heed General Casey’s advice to refocus American Strategy on disengagement and withdrawal.[19] He was right not to do so. ‘No other possibility exists … than to subordinate the military point of view to the political’.[20]     

Solution: the OODA Loop?

Or was Casey suggesting a change of Tactics? Or of Policy? I'm not quite sure; as I said, I was only ever a corporal, and not a terribly strategic one at that.[21]  Perhaps, though, John Boyd points to a resolution with his thoughts on a process that will ‘permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment’.[22]  I’d like to think that Col Boyd’s OODA Loop can reconcile the Clausewitzian circle with the Hegelian spiral, and I plan to investigate this possibility as the term goes on.

[This idea eventually led to my M.A. thesis and the book that developed from it, A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror.]

[1] Hegel 1892, p.149. In a pleasing symmetry, Hegel and Clausewitz were both carried off in the plague year of 1831 (Wilson 2002, p.24)

[2] Luttwak 1987, pp. 18-19

[3] Clausewitz 1976, pp. 149, 182, 479, 607 (italics added)

[6]Ibid, p.89

[7] Wilson 2002, p.29

[8]Ibid, p.177

[9] Luttwak 1987, pp.93-94. Perhaps this is where President Bush went wrong: it’s not easy to imagine Tommy Franks or even Donald Rumsfeld as Colin Gray’s well-rounded strategist, weighing the constraints of jus ad bellum and jus in bello (Gray 1999, p.52)

[10] Ibid, p. 53. It seems to be a rule of military writing that everything shall march by threes: Luttwak himself (p. 91) prefers a Trinity of Strategy, Operational Art, and Tactics, ignoring Policy altogether

[11] quoted in Gray 1999, p.18

[12] Gray 1999, p.21

[13] Stone 2007 (writing of course before the 'surge')

[14] Clausewitz 1976, p.80 (uppercase in the original)

[15] Wilson 2002, pp.29-30, 33

[16] Luttwak 1987, p.90fn; Gray 1999, p.17

[17] Strachan 2005

[18] Pessin 2008, quoting Michael O’Hanlon.

[19] Woodward 2008

[20] Clausewitz 1976, p.607

[21] Krulak 1999. The US Army in 1956 didn’t teach strategy to its conscripts, or much of anything beyond snappy obedience

[22] Boyd 1976


Clausewitz, Carl von (1976), in Michael Howard and Peter Paret, ed. & tr, On War (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press)

Gray, Colin (1999), Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press)

Hegel, Georg (1892), 'The Science of Logic', in William Wallace, tr., The Logic of Hegel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed.)

Krulak, Charles (1999), ‘The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War’, Marines Magazine, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 28-34.

Pessin, Al (2008), 'Gates Hails "Hero of the Hour" as Petraeus Prepares to Leave> Iraq Command’ [online, accessed 15.09.08; no longer available]

Stone, John (2007), 'Clausewitz's Trinity and Contemporary Conflict', Civil Wars, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 282-296

Strachan, Hew (2005), 'The Lost Meaning of Strategy', Survival, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 33-54

Wilson, Philip (2002), Strategic Thinking: An Introduction and Farewell (Boulder CO & London: Lynn Reinner)

Woodward, Bob (2008), 'Outmaneuvered And Outranked, Military Chiefs Became Outsiders', Washington Post, 08.09.08, p. A1

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Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

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