June 18th, 2011

Swinging Between Poles

I had a conversation with Joseph Fouche that he summarizes a little bit on some failings of contemporary strategic thinking. Of course, we also talked in great detail about William Gibson’s long-lost Aliens script, but that’s for another post.

Fouche points out that the material fixation of a lot of contemporary strategists has costs:

Naive strategic autism is usually a form of naïve materialism in which the obviously concrete forms of power and their supposed rational use come to the fore. The assumption behind strategic autism is that everyone can be bought off if they get enough tangible stuff . One prototypical illustration of this is the trope that if you go in to an Afghan or Iraqi village and give everyone a job, than the part of the human brain that’s red in tooth and claw will take a chill pill.

I like the phrase “strategic autism” because it captures the problems with the materialistic obsession of post-1945 strategic thinking and its infatuation with rational choice. The other extreme, of course, is the idea that irrational passions completely dominate us—something that Fouche rightly also rejects. 

That’s why I like Clausewitz’s Trinity so much as an analytical device. As Fouche pointed out in a comment about the making of strategy:

The term “astrategic” carries with it the implicit assumption that there’s some platonically ideal equilibrium between ends and means that can be reached by us poor bloody mortals. Strategy in real life is always an imperfect, ugly, and barely functional reconciliation of ends and means, pouring bloody, untidy, and misshapen straight from the sausage machine. As a process, strategy is often only as productive as you’d expect banging the square peg of means into the round hole of ends with only your bare forehead as a hammer would be. More broadly, strategy is a constant struggle to keep the correlation between the three competing poles CvC’s Trinity (primordial passion, chance and probability, and rationalized calculation) more favorable than unfavorable.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng