For most of my time in undergrad and my terminal MA, the dominant object of discussion revolved around several theme (which are still being debated today, I might add):
- Is there a higher “graduate” level of war? (and if so, is counterinsurgency that level?)
- Do domain-specific subsets of warfare require their own theory distinct from the general theory of war? And even if the “grammar” of warfare does not fundamentally change underlying logic, how much domain-specific explanation do we need to understand and practice different grammars?
- Are there discrete levels of war (tactics, operations, campaigns, strategy, etc)?
- Does the nature of war change?
The neo-Clausewitzian position, epitomized by the writings of Colin S. Gray, is that war has one nature but many characters. Understandings of a particular character that diverges in some fundamental way from underlying logic will only lead a theorist astray.
That said, as I’ve often discussed with my friend Nick Prime, we often conflate theories of strategy with theories of war. A theory of strategy follows naturally from a theory of war, but concerns a subset of war — the organization of violence for political purpose. Much in the same way game theory can be used to explain the decisions of actors in the international system, but isn’t necessarily a theory of international politics in and of itself. Strategy in war is a heuristic hunch about how we can gain advantage with violence or the threat of violence.
As a neo-Clausewitzian theorist, Gray has synthesized the writings of many different general and domain-specific military theorists into a unified whole, even if some of them (such as Wylie and Clausewitz) do not mesh together perfectly. Still, the fundamental contention of the neo-Clausewitzian school — which also to some extent approximates ideas of strategy from business theorists like Rumelt and Mintzberg — is that strategy itself does not fully specify its implementation. Strategy is a map that we use to get from here to there, but actually takes the form of tactics.
This is in part why as a research matter and a theoretical matter strategy is pernicious. We can obviously see the tactics in any given operation, war, or campaign, but the underlying strategy that they served (or didn’t) is more elusive. Does the composition of tactics serve any coherent strategy? Or do we have “tactics without strategy?”
On the idea of operational art and levels of war — the idea of discrete levels of war, besides serving as a justification for political-military authority/budgets (“My bombers are *strategic,* your tanks are just *tactical*”) seems to fit with our uncertainty over whether or not everything we do in an armed contest can fit into a neat strategy/tactics distinction. After all, what we referred to as strategy in the 19th century seems fairly small-scale and evokes images of wars small enough that the fate of nations could be decided in large, decisive Napoleonic battles. Is there not a process of tactical composition that goes on, with differing tactical structures composed of substructure components? A theater of war vs. a particular campaign, a particular campaign vs. an operation, an operation vs. battle, etc etc. Indeed, that is what James J. Schneider argued in his military history of operational art and his metaphor of operational art as the “loose marble” of war.
On that note, we can just say that all manifestations of strategy are tactics, but did not that Clausewitzian Aleksandr Svechin make some qualitative distinctions between layers?:
Insofar as we try to achieve positive goals, an operation is an incomparably more economical way of expending military force than local battles. Soldiers are very capable of seeing the difference between operational rationalism and operational shoddiness and are much more eager to sacrifice themselves when they feel that they are on the way to achieving the ultimate goal of a war. Commanders who abuse local battles themselves give evidence of the poverty of their operational talents. What may be completely impossible on a local scale or will require incommensurate sacrifices may be achieved incidentally and much less expensively on an operational scale.
Second, the similarities between various domain-specific “grammars” of war — while obvious in theory — seems to be difficult to sort out in practice. Hence the perennial arguments about whether or not institutional knowledge about guerrilla warfare is perishable, whether or not we need new ideas of war because of cyber warfare, etc etc. On the latter subject, while I disagree with Rosa Brooks about Clausewitz and cyber-attacks, the more I learn about computers and computer science the less confident I am in Thomas Rid’s ideas about cyber attacks, Clausewitz, and warfare. Certainly I don’t think that cyber warfare invalidates the general neo-Clausewitzian idea that Gray expresses. But the specifics —as with debates about insurgency, terrorism, and Clausewitz — matter.
These are all difficult questions. However, there is one way we can look at this that may resolve some of the tensions. First, I’m talking now of strategy — strategic interactions and our ways to model and explain them — not war itself. Let’s run through some assumptions of the neo-Clausewitzian corpus as a preliminary:
- Strategy is a means of converting violence into political currency.
- Making strategy is a process of dialogue and negotiation.
- Strategy takes the form of tactics.
- War has one nature and many characters, and hence domain-specific theories of strategy can exist as long as they are congruent with a general idea of strategy.
- Strategy is not a plan — it does not follow specify its implementation and evolves as a function of elements of war such as reason of state, enmity and passion, and the play of chance on the battlefield.
I have already argued elsewhere that differing strategic problems produce variation in models of strategic reasoning. Here I will argue that we can utilize ideas from computation to further explore dimensions of strategy from a neo-Clausewitzian perspective.
The art of computer programming rests on aspects of computation that are generalized and unchanging. Hence this is why a given algorithmic problem is often usually just a problem instance of a more general issue. Creativity in implementation is needed, but at the end of the day the core problems of computation are structured by formal properties of mathematics and physics. This explains why concepts from discrete and combinatorial mathematics can be literally represented as data structures or algorithms. The goal of computation is to take something as input and return a desired result, and the ingredients involved are structures and operations of various sorts.
That said, when it comes to the art of crafting programs, we see a nesting effect. A programming language is characterized by primitive data types that are combined into more complex composites. Data structures can hold various forms of data. Operations on data produce programs, and various operations have differing scope, impact, and relationship to other operations. Finally, programs themselves are often the result of modular subprograms that are patched together to create a desired effect. As a machine, the problem of all of the interacting subparts can produce undesired effects (or “friction”).
How programs are designed and composed is a product of rigorous debate. There are different styles of programming (functional, imperative, object-oriented), differing ideas of design (design patterns, etc), and differing debates about tools. There isn’t necessarily an objective answer to any of these questions, though practitioners can behave as such.
The core takeaway, though, are the elements of nestedness of components. A program can be thought of as a structure composed of building blocks of various size — though the interaction of all of those building blocks does not flow solely in one direction. And while philosophies, methods, and design styles all differ the core dynamics have a foundation independent of particular style or technology. Most problems a software engineer faces are just instances of more general kinds of puzzles.
The process of strategy has many similarities. Though at core, a strategy consists of combining tactical operations together to produce a desired result, tactics themselves are produced by combinations of smaller subcomponents. A strategy is modular at core, in that generalized tactics can be swapped and customized to fit particular needs. Land operations differ in application but are structurally similar — no matter the geographic location or political objective. There is not an discrete operational art, though the art of command from the perspective of Bagration and how many levels of composition were needed to produce it vs. Cannae is obviously distinct.
One might also view the idea of historically recurring types of weapon systems and organizations (the argument that Archer Jones makes) as abstract data types vs. particular data structures. The recurring nature of different operations of war (siege, pursuits, intelligence, attack, defense, logistics, etc) throughout history is also an argument for the idea of an abstract and unchanging idea of strategy composed of abstract and unchanging tactics and tactical subcomponents. This is also something that Jones and Hans Delbruck both tried to emphasize in their particular work, although Jones was more explicit about the idea of strategy as composite.
The implication of this ability to see strategy as a process of combining nested abstract subcomponents is the realization that generalized/abstract strategic problems also re-occur throughout history. If the core problem is using violence to achieve the policy, then particular problems concerning the organization and use of violence will be transitive across history. Intelligence and strategic warning, for example, was just as much a problem in the Bible as it was in Pearl Harbor in 1941. Most problems that practitioners encounter are specific instances of more generalized problems, though practitioners will often be tempted to regard them as unique.
I should hasten to add that war is neither an art nor a science, it is a practical activity. It also concerns human beings and social organizations, not computer programs. Knowledge of these particular abstractions will not, contra von Bulow or Jomini, provide a plug and play template for analyzing or conducting warfare. A particular context (Clausewitz’s “real” war not “ideal” war) and the will of the adversary will be judge of what is right to do and what is not.
And while the actual structure and operations of strategy may fit the description I’ve listed above, the way decisions are made about particular compositions and organization is, as Gray and others argue, not just about structured problem-solving but also a function of politics, morality, culture, geography, resources, technology, and the enemy. Empirically, strategy as a whole shouldn’t be assumed to represent the optimal way of solving a political problem — only the way that political intercourse manifests itself in a particular organization of violence.
That said, from the perspective of a descriptive theory of the instrumental aspect of strategy (e.g. structure and function), the neo-Clausewitzian idea that Gray describes can be further explained by the scheme I have outlined above. It also, while abstract, does not rest on ideas like “eternal human nature” or metaphysics. Rather, it argues that the process of organizing violence to accomplish a political goal and thwarting an adversary’s effort to do the same can be described and decomposed at a high level of formalization and abstraction, and contextual problems, structures, or operations thought to be unique can be shown to be part of a general class of things. Finally, it also leaves room for new structures and ideas (space power, cyberpower, etc) to be both added on as both new abstractions and nested under more general ones.
Strategic theory is personality and domain-driven — theoretical progress will come when we, as Gray and Lawrence Freedman are currently doing, look at the practice independent of the domain or the personality.