Today I would like to muse on the often neglected aspect of grand strategy, given that it is something which people look for often on this site, and thus far I only have one posting (a book review on the excellent book The Grand Design: Strategy in the U.S. Civil War) in a subject about which I ponder reasonably often. The reason for that is that strategy is one of those very deep matters about which little has been written. Though, what little about it that has been written, like Clausewitz’s On War has been very good.
Let us therefore proceed from Clausewitz’s cliched but still misunderstood dictum that “war is a continuation of politics by other means” and extend that insight outward here in a brief manner. One of the reasons why the United States insists on civilian control of the military is because policy (or politics) is in the control of elected civilian officials whose duty it is to look at the goals and objectives of the nation, with the military as a means of obtaining those goals. For example, all nations have as a goal self-preservation, and so long as that is there are threats to a nation’s survival a military will be necessary for self-defense. More ambitious nations may have goals of expansion–and militaries will be necessary for that task as well (though it should be recognized that diplomats and businessmen and missionaries are also the servants of national and cultural interests).
If a nation finds itself in a war, its goal is to figure out what it wants out of it. Are its goals defensive–merely to preserve its existing territory and regime, or are they offensive–to take over a certain province or to remove another nation’s leadership? If the goals of a nation are defensive, their task is somewhat simplified–they need only preserve their forces and wear out an invader, defeating enough armies and winning enough battles to cause the other nation to give up their attack. Additionally, a nation under threat and seeking to fight defensively is wise to seek allies who are also threatened by the aggressor, allowing it to force upon the attacking nation a war against a larger coalition of forces or a war on multiple fronts. Furthermore, the lack of desire in taking over the territory and possessions of other nations often gives it a better image in the light of world public opinion, which can hopefully provide some support and aid if the threat is formidable enough.
If a nation has as its aim the conquest of territory or the destruction of a hostile regime, its operations should be tied to that goal, and are a much more difficult task than simply to defend. If permanent conquest is desired, it may be necessary to win the “hearts and minds” of the local citizenry, whose loyalty to their present government is a serious matter. It is imperative, at any rate, not to so inflame the populace that they actively seek your destruction, as it is extremely destructive of regimes to try to hold provinces against their will–witness how much trouble little Judea gave the great Roman Empire, or that Wales and Ireland gave the English.
There are many areas where the relationship between operations and battle tactics and the grand strategy of a conflict can go awry. For example, some nations never articulate their grand strategy. What was the grand strategy in Vietnam, for example? Was it to defend South Vietnam from Communist aggression, or to ensure the existence in South Vietnam of an acceptable regime (to the United States) and its control over territory. To seek to ensure a favorable government is an aggressive aim, found in imperialistic nations, but to defend regimes from foreign aggression is itself a defensive aim, broadly acceptable according to international practice. In all honesty, the U.S. grand strategy (never publicly or precisely articulated, to my knowledge) included both aims–it was a muddled offensive-defensive strategy. The result was defeat–tactical successes and technological superiority cannot trump strategic failure.
There are other major examples of strategic blunders leading to military defeat. The defeat of the South in the American Civil War was another such example. The goal of the South was defensive–its regime had control of most of the territory it claimed at the outset of war (the eleven states of the Confederacy and some sympathetic allies in neighboring states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland) despite the presence of some dissatisfied minorities within its own claimed territory (notably in Western Virginia and Eastern Tennessee and in scattered other areas of the Confederacy). Unfortunately, its aggressive invasions to increase its territorial holdings nearly always ended in disaster (Glorietta in the Far West, Pea Ridge and Westport in the Missouri front, Columbus and Perryville in Kentucky, Antietam and Gettysburg in the East), and the losses from those campaigns damaged the capacity of the South to preserve its forces to achieve its defensive strategic goals. Additionally, its abominably poor diplomacy (not aided in the least by its disreputable slave-based socioeconomic system) failed to provide the South allies capable of distracting the North from its task of the destruction of the Confederate regime. On the side of the North, the moral fervor of abolition was eventually added to the North’s gain of recovery of its rebellious provinces, and allowing the North to gain in power from arming slaves against their former masters, providing a way for the North to provide moral strength to its strategic goals of conquest and aid it operationally by increasing its strength through the support of blacks and mountaineer whites opposed to secession. The North’s strategic clarity and greater subordination of tactical and operational behavior to those goals led, eventually, to victory. The South’s lack of union between tactics and operations and strategy led, eventually, to defeat.
It is worthwhile to note that not only must a nation determine its precise goals, but it must determine if it has the means to succeed in those goals. Mexico may want to reconquer New Mexico and California, but if it cannot ensure its rule over its existing territories (which is the case right now), then it cannot hope to succeed in invading its more powerful neighbor to the North. It is unwise and irrational to pursue war as a way of achieving one’s goals if one does not have the means to actually do what one wishes. It is far wiser to deal with what is and try to work on creating more favorable conditions for the achievement of one’s goals. It is the task of a statesman to be aware of and conscious of possibilities and practicalities and to make sure to keep diligently laboring to improve one’s situation and make one’s goals achievable.
It is easy to understand why strategy is so vitally important, but less easy to grasp it, given its tricky and demanding nature. One must know reality–to have as full as possible an understanding of one’s capabilities and those of one’s opponents–in order to achieve one’s goals. One must understand one’s own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of those who are in opposition. One must then be on the lookout for opportunities to achieve one’s aims or threats to one’s own position, and conscious of how to exploit the one and defuse the other. Such a task requires immense self-control, self-knowledge, and soundness of mind. Tactics is concerned with winning battles and arguments, but strategy is determining whether the argument or war ought to be engaged in the first place, marshaling one’s allies and ensuring that one is actually fighting a real enemy rather than a potential friend who does not in fact threaten our aims but who may, under the right circumstances, support them.
Such matters are intrinsically “soft,” rather than “hard.” They depend on character, integrity, honor, trust, rather than straightforward definitions and lines. They require a mind attuned to the proper way to behave, propriety in conduct, and commitment to clearly defined objectives, which all of one’s operations and actions pursue diligently. Such a task is a very challenging one for human beings who do not know themselves or know what they are after, but is a very rewarding one for those who are able to clearly define what they stand for and what they want, and who are willing and able to do battle for it. They also require a recognition that warfare is only one of the options available, and that if no battle is necessary, one ought to seek less violent and destructive ways of achieving one’s goals. Self-control and self-discipline are key to victory, as strategy requires a cool and deliberate mind as well as an honorable character and a keen awareness of the situation at hand. If one rashly provokes a war one cannot win, there will be no sympathy from victorious enemies. If one seeks victory, one must pay great attention to strategy, and know and heed one’s limits. The price of folly is far too great when such grand matters are at stake.