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Schools for Strategy: Teaching Strategy for 21st Century Conflict

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray. | November 2009

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Because strategic performance must involve the ability to decide, to command, and to lead, as well as the capacity to understand, there are practical limits to what is feasible and useful by way of formal education in strategy. The soldier who best comprehends what Sun-tzu, Clausewitz, and Thucydides intended to say, is not necessarily the soldier best fitted to strategic high command. It is important to distinguish between intellect and character/personality. The superior strategist is ever uniquely a product of nature/biology, personality/psychology, and experience/opportunity. Nonetheless, formal education has its place.

Strategic genius is rare, strategic talent is more common, though still unusual. The latter can be improved by formal education, the former most probably cannot. However, there is merit in the educational aspiration to help educate instinct for a better performance.

It is fortunate that genius is not strictly required in our strategists since education is apt to be unable to reach it. What we do require is competence based on a talent that can be educated. There is no denying that because strategy is a pragmatic creative activity, the strategist--well-educated or not in a formal sense-- ideally has to know what to do, how to do it, and, last but not least, he/she needs to be able to do it. Obviously, biology and psychology shaped by the opportunities granted by experience loom large here. Professors of Strategy cannot so teach their military students that they are truly fit for purpose as strategists-in-action. But professors can help educate the strategic judgment of those soldiers and civilians who are educable.

Because it is a practical real-world endeavor, strategy and its strategists do not have to secure a grade of excellence, though that certainly is right as the ambition. By its very nature, our strategy has to be good enough to compete with the enemy’s strategy, in the whole strategic context. By that, I mean that even if strategy is relatively uninspired, so complex is competition and war that fungibility may save us. Our generals, or troops, or equipment, or tactics might be less than stellar, but somewhere amidst the myriad facets of statecraft, war, and warfare, we might be able to locate and exploit compensating advantages.

Although the classroom (of several kinds) cannot put in what God and nature omitted, it does not follow that strategy cannot be taught to good effect. Any strategically educable person should have their capacity for sound and perhaps superior strategic judgment improved by intense exposure to the small canon of classic texts on general strategic theory. Even though personal experience is the finest teacher, there should be no denying the value in consideration of the wisdom distilled from lifelong learning by the greatest strategic minds of all time. If one is unable to profit as a strategist from careful study of Sun-tzu, Thucydides, Clausewitz, and Edward N. Luttwak, then one should not aspire to the strategic baton--unless one truly is a genius, of course.

The strategic educator seeks to assist the student in his ability to think strategically. He has to help hone performance of the strategic function which obligates a coherent meshing of ends, ways, and means. All too often it is popular to teach strategy only with empirical reference to our contemporary and anticipated near-future challenges. This is understandable but nonetheless is an error. Strategic studies worthy of the name can degenerate into a professionally narrowly competent variant of current affairs. The students initially value what they see as high personal relevance in the strategic problems of today, but that very relevance is likely to shape and bias their analysis. Because strategy and its function is eternal and universal, there is much to be said for taking students out of their contemporary comfort zone of familiar detail and instead obliging them to reason strategically for different times and places. The basic problems will be discovered to be startlingly similar. The strategic educator does not seek to develop experts on the strategic issues of the early 21st century. Rather he strives to educate aspiring strategists in the ability to think strategically and exercise strategic judgment.

Indispensable to an education in strategy is recognition of strategy’s limits. Strategic performance requires a tactical competence by its sword arm that it cannot always assume. Similarly, and as much to the point, the prospects for a superior strategic performance must be impacted massively by the wisdom or otherwise in the politics-as-policy that turns the official key for action and propels it. The strategist has to devise and execute plans (theories) for military behavior that should advance and perhaps secure the goals specified by policy. But those goals can be ill chosen, and they vary with political mood and circumstance. It is the duty of the strategist to try to match purposeful military effort and its consequences with the country’s political interests expressed as policy. This can be a mission of heroic difficulty, even to the point of impossibility.

One reason why strategic performance can be poor is because senior military strategists may prove unable to communicate effectively on military realities to professional politicians who do not want to be told what most probably cannot be done, and therefore should not be attempted. While it is the duty of policy to listen to, and conduct genuine dialog with military expertise, it is the duty of the military profession so to educate its senior strategists that such a dialog worthy of the name is possible. A well-educated strategist is a person who is educated in more than strategy. A liberal education in the classical sense must be helpful to the human performance that is a key enabler of high quality in national strategic performance.