Monday, August 12, 2013

Back to the Future Part 4: On Strategy


For few years now, I have been harping on the Marine Corps for its poor strategic education program. (Sorry, CG 13, EWS Class 2012-2013, I know you’re tired of this.) By poor, I do not mean that the strategic education is bad. Command and Staff College, where Marine officers receive their first real dose of strategic theory, has a great curriculum and outstanding staff. Rather, this dose of strategic theory comes far too late in an officer’s career. No tactical action exists without strategic context, but we pretend that it is not necessary or possible for an officer to understand that context until he or she is a field grade officer. This is false.

The justification for teaching officers strategic theory so late is that lieutenants and captains are not strategic leaders, they are tactical leaders. Theirs is not to question why, theirs is but to do or die, if you will. The decisions that company grade officers make on the battlefield are tactical in nature and thus strategic theory is unnecessary. It only makes sense that tactical leaders do not need strategic sense in order to make good tactical decisions.

This is right. Company grade officers are tactical leaders. But that Prussian-accented voice at the back of my mind whispers a quiet, “Nein.”
Strategy thereby gains the end it had ascribed to the [tactical] engagement, the end that constitutes its real significance… The original means of strategy is victory- that is, tactical success… Strategy, in connecting these factors with the outcome of the engagement, confers a special significance on that outcome and thereby on the engagement: it assigns a particular aim to it… Successful engagements or victories in all stages of importance may therefore be considered as strategic means… Not only individual engagements with particular aims are to be classified as means: any greater unity formed in a combination of engagements by being directed toward a common aim can also be considered as a means. - On War (Howard/Paret trans.) Pages 142-143.
What he means is that strategy determines ends and that those ends can only be accomplished through tactics. Tactics are only effective when endowed with significance that serves the strategy. A tactician must choose tactics that have that significance. Tactics that do not serve the strategy are, at best, wasteful. At worst, they are detrimental. Sun Tzu agrees: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Yet, we send lieutenants out to make tactical decisions without arming them with even the rudimentary skills necessary to give those decisions meaning. We cannot expect effective tactical decision making without strategic insight.  In fact, our doctrine depends on it. Maneuver warfare theory preaches that decision-making must be delegated to the lowest levels, that junior leaders must make their own decisions in the absence of orders or if the situation demands, that Marines must have a bias for action. This vacuum can be filled by only a few basic strategic theory classes at TBS and EWS. These basic classes would not be intended to make experts, but only to guide the self-study of those interested. On War is a mainstay on the Commandant’s Reading List, but few can pick up that tome and understand it without guidance or explanation. The Marine Corps expects every officer to conduct this self study but has yet to provide a decent guide to that study. The strategic theory forest is dark and thickly wooded, but a few chemlights along an officer’s path can do a world of good. 

To be sure, the Marine Corps is not a strategy-making body. However, the Marine Corps has a responsibility to inform those that do on tactical and operational plans. The necessity to understand strategy is clear. The Marine Corps used to understand this precept, one needs only read the first few pages of the Small Wars Manual to see that. Unfortunately, one needs only read a few pages of today’s diluted doctrine to see that it has forgotten it. Fortunately the solution to this problem is inexpensive. Since the future of the Marine Corps is one of budget austerity that looks worse all the time, education might be one of the last areas that the institution can affect. Thinking is free, after all, and adding classes on strategic theory to TBS and EWS is far more cost effective than the next leap ahead weapon system. What we cannot afford is to continue to ignore this important aspect of our profession.


  1. Sun Tzu never said, "tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat." Army Colonel Gian Gentile used that a lot in his writings, but had to walk it back and issue a mea culpa for not digging it up from a primary source. First cited uses of the phrase is in 2003 (IIRC) in a book about Sun Tzu, but the author's words.

  2. I had always thought that all Commissioned officers (including the Lieutenants and Captains) were immediately taught strategic theory without waiting that they reach the level of field grade officer.

    I just hope that the Chinese counterpart of the US Marine Corps "under estimate" also the capacity and the capabilities of their Lieutenants and Captains or else, it won't be surprising in the near future that they would be better than the USMC.

  3. Military strategy is often a study that is underemphasized in Officer training. Some of the basic tenets in "The Art of War" should be taught at every grade level from lieutenant up through Colonel.

  4. I would like to believe that military strategy should be taught from the beginning of the non commissioned officers through lieutenant colonels. After all when in battle a Cpl. may take command of a small unit/platoon and carry out these duties anywhere from six months to a year in wartime.