Strategists Break All the Rules

January 7, 2013

In the May 2007 issue of Armed Forces Journal, then Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling, U.S. Army, asserted that a crisis existed in America’s Army. “A Failure in Generalship” reopened a persistent debate within the Army about whether the Army develops and promotes strategic thinking. Yingling argued, “[O]ur generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly.”1 He went on to say that despite the peacekeeping, peace enforcement and other stability-type operations over the past 20 years, the Army’s leadership failed to recognize change and build institutional capacity—structurally, doctrinally or educationally. Instead, the institution largely focused on tactical scenarios that replicated high-intensity conflict and complicated operational movement and sustainment problems. Yingling suggested that the Army lacked the mental agility to recognize the difference between the wars the Army wants to fight and the wars that U.S. politicians decide to fight.

Yingling’s central insight is that structure, professionalism and deliberate specialization in the Army led to a bifurcated approach to war: politicians decided on war and then left it to be won by the military experts. This divergence produced two pieces of conventional wisdom in debates about U.S. military and civilian relationships: first, that an apolitical army represented a more professional force; and second, that the problems at the tactical and operational levels were similar enough to be useful in developing strategic thinking. These assumptions resulted in what Samuel P. Huntington described as the “normal-theory” relationship between policymakers and generals.

These assumptions beg the question of how strategists in the U.S. Army have performed, if they have gotten it right and, if so, how did they get it right? This monograph will trace American strategists’ performance from before the progressive era, the progressive movement from the 1860s to World War I, World War II and the Cold War and conclude with observations from the current operational environment.

The professionalization movement, initiated by Emory Upton after the Civil War and accelerated by Secretary of War Elihu Root (1905–1909), led the U.S. Army to focus too much on tactical 2 and operational problems and the maintenance of the institutional Army and not enough on educating officers on how to take a holistic approach to war. The professionalization of the military, accelerated during the industrial era, narrowed officers’ training and education to focus on technical, tactical and operational problems. For most of the pre-Root reform era, the U.S. Army was little more than a frontier constabulary with few strategic concerns. Partly because of a long-standing American social and political distrust of a large standing Army, the only significant war functions were the requirements to raise, train and lead mass conscript or volunteer forces in the event of real war. The irony of a small standing Army was that its size led to stronger relationships between general officers and their political masters.

Historically, the progressive era occurred as a response to industrialization just after the Civil War, from the 1860s to the early 1900s. During this period, Emory Upton developed and wrote a concept about how best to professionalize the U.S. Army, with the underlying intent to leave warfighting to professionals. Elihu Root codified many of his ideas after the failures in the Spanish–American War of 1898. The broad campaign to reform America socially, politically and economically matched Root’s move to institutionalize and professionalize the Army. The Root reforms, accelerated by industrialization and technology, created a highly specialized Army that focused on gaining, maintaining and improving tactical and operational competence and cemented the fundamental assumption that an apolitical Army was more useful for the United States.

The assumption made sense for the United States but had one unfortunate result. The Army as an institution misread the nature of an apolitical force. The essence of an apolitical force should be nonpartisan—Army professionals above political interference or interest. There is a difference, however, between policy and politics. While not involving itself in the political life of the nation, the Army is vitally concerned with the policies of the nation. The discussion for which strategists must prepare is political but in the nature of policy as the object of war. The Army confused apolitical with policy in the manner addressed by Carl von Clausewitz. 

The poor performance of the War Department during the Spanish-American War stimulated the call for reform. The resulting Root reforms emphasized the need to develop a professional force prepared to fight modern war. The industrial age created more complex conditions in which the technical aspects of warfare seemed dominant. Warfare was changing and seemed to demand a greater emphasis on technical and tactical skills. Caught up in this age of reform and emphasis on professionalization, the Army groomed and promoted technically competent tacticians, assuming that genius would emerge as they entered the strategic and political realm. This resulted in general officers unprepared to conduct a meaningful conversation about how to translate political objectives into military campaigns.

As U.S. prestige and interests grew abroad, “the military profession . . . emerged in its most pure form, as a group of technically and organizationally trained experts in the management of violence.” Although successful in World War II and having carried that success to the beginning of the Korean War, the U.S. Army entered a period of relatively static strategic conditions. The specter of thermonuclear war dominated the strategic discourse. In the post-Cold War era, the Army lapsed into strategic drift as it tried to understand the requirements for limited war and eventually an all-volunteer force. Locked into the assumption of the apolitical U.S. Army, the political choice to leave Vietnam destroyed the Army’s limited successes there.

At the end of the Cold War, some Army leaders recognized that a new era would require more strategic thinking. In 1989, General John R. Galvin noted the problem and asked, “How do we get as broad a leavening of strategic thinkers as possible?” Then serving as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. European Command, General Galvin approached the problem from a combined educational, institutional and generalist perspective. He expected changes in the way the Army educated and promoted its officers. His comments anticipated an intellectual approach to developing strategic thinkers for the complexities of modern warfare in the post-Cold War era. General Galvin wanted the Army to change its culture and develop a structured approach to growing strategic thinkers.

Instead, the Army maintained its tactical and operational bias and chose an organizational approach that developed a specialized group of competent strategists called Functional Area 59 (FA59). Lieutenant Colonel Charles P. Moore, then serving as the Basic Strategic Arts Program director, rekindled General Galvin’s essay hoping to inform both military and civilian readers that the Army’s initial step to develop competent strategic thinkers was succeeding. The FA59 program attempted to solve the Army’s crisis in strategic thinking and the United States’ “long decline in strategic competence” by increasing the number of strategic thinkers. The Army’s experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Asia–Pacific and on the Southwest Border suggests a different perspective. Perhaps four hundred strategists serving in positions throughout the Army and the rest of the interagency is not enough; the real requirement for strategists does not offset the requirement for senior leaders to think strategically.

There seems to be a thread of belief from this recent analysis that the professional military educational (PME) system is ineffective in producing officers who can think critically and creatively to solve complex, ill-structured problems. The apparent difference between problem sets at the tactical level and at the strategic level requires deeper analysis. The difference appears to develop from the admixture of policy at the strategic level. The strategist’s problem is the whole mess of interacting, interdependent actors, their associated agendas and the numerous resulting theories about how to achieve victory. 

Strategic thinking suffered long-lasting impacts from the transition of a small, cadre-like volunteer force reinforced by a quickly trained militia to a more professional Army during the progressive era. Professionalization of the Army led to a loss of strategic perspective and an inability to connect long-term strategic–political objectives to operations. The U.S. Army’s continued professionalization, established during the progressive era, narrowed the perspective and resulted in officers unprepared to deal with ill-structured political–military problems by removing the political object of war from the warrior’s purview.