Thoughts from a Budding Strategist

Confess: it’s my profession

that alarms you.

This is why few people ask me to dinner,

though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.

– Margaret Atwood, “The Loneliness of the Military Historian”

As someone studying strategy and warfare, I often remark that I’m not too fun to be around at dinner parties. I get excited talking about war and don’t miss an opportunity to wear a smile when discussing things like nuclear strategy. My bookshelf is filled with books that would make many people cringe: Another Bloody Century, On War, Understanding Modern Warfare, Fighting Talk and many more. Strategy and the prospect of war are my intellectual passions. All of this laid the groundwork for a recent funny encounter. A few weeks ago, while I enjoyed dinner with my mother, I began talking about war and ideas I had about strategy. As my smile widened while I shared some thoughts about what I think US strategy should look like towards Iran, my mother gave me this look. It was a look that I’ve received from many friends and family members when they hear I’m studying strategy. The look conveys a range of emotions, ranging from skeptical curiosity to genuine worry about my mental state. Just then, as my mother’s bewilderment glanced at my excitement, I finally understood the loneliness Margaret Atwood describes. But as someone who hopes to make strategy his profession, it is that excitement and passion that I now hope to explain.

Popular military history is incredibly gruesome. It features images of the dead and wounded, citizens who wander around their leveled home town, searching for their possessions amid the rubble. The talk of killing in combat and war crimes shortly follow. Wars almost always end in death and it is of course natural that the gut reaction many have to that dreaded word is one of disgust, anger and fear. Given the banality of war, why would one embark on a career to study it? Critics claim that strategists and military historians are fascinated by violence. They claim that strategists are emotionless when they discuss potential nuclear holocausts. Herman Kahn’s important book On Thermonuclear War has been described as “a moral tract on mass murder, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it.” In the introduction to one of his many brilliant essays on nuclear strategy, Bernard Brodie commented “Who can enjoy finding himself in a position which, besides being somewhat lonely intellectually, seems by contrast with that of the opposition to be more than a little insensitive, heartless, and even wicked?” A man of my own heart.

It is against this backdrop that I have decided to set sail straight into the vast ocean that is military strategy and although my journey is only now beginning, I have a few thoughts to share.

It is, of course, uncomfortable to talk about war since war is fundamentally a human endeavor. From the soldiers who fight to the strategists who plan, to engage in war both physically and intellectually is to enter the often scary world of human nature. Mankind is, of course, uniquely capable of displaying acts of kindness and love. Yet, we have never been able to escape Thucydides’ triptych that we fight out of “fear, honor and interest,” nor have we been able to alter human nature away from Hobbes’ understanding that we are inherently destructive, selfish, competitive, and aggressive. We ought to remind those outside strategic studies and military history that studying war is, on some level, studying ourselves.

For the future of strategy and military history to retain its importance both in and out of the academy, we must dispel the notion that studying war with all its awesome consequences is somehow cold, heartless and violence obsessive. If we don’t level similar accusations against the oncologist for studying cancerous tumors, we ought to make clear that we too do not take some perverse pleasure in suffering and death. Indeed, the oncologist and strategist go about their professions in similar ways; to have a better tomorrow, we need to understand the evils of today. Si vis pacem, para bellum is our motto.

But understanding the evils of today is quite passé. Much of the study of strategy has been tainted by the advent of what some scholars call “Pinkerism.” The eminent cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has argued in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that society has become less violent and wars are declining. Although Pinker’s work has been critiqued by the strategic studies community, it has seemed to take hold of the public writ large. The rise of Pinkerism has coincided with the development and promotion of “peace studies” and more calls for a world without nuclear weapons. We have also seen the “othering” of military studies in the academy. Today’s military historians are under pressure not to pursue classical history and instead are told to focus on race, class and gender in military historiography; not battles and insurgencies.

Tomorrow’s strategists need to demonstrate the folly in this line of thinking. Strategists understand that being ignorant of history is not only dangerous because history is doomed to repeat itself. Rather, historical awareness is necessary for reminding us that there is a unity to all of history. As Colin Gray notes, “The well educated strategist knows that the grand strategy of Alexander the Great provides object lessons for all time. That judgment also applies to the revolution in military affairs that he carried through as well to his counterinsurgency campaign in what today is Afghanistan… If one seeks strategic instruction there is no particular reason to focus upon Iraq or Afghanistan in the 2000s, any period of strategic history might provide what is needed.” We are likely heading into another bloody century, one that will be marked with war and conflict, albeit perhaps not on an industrial mechanized scale. Falling prey to our apparently newfound virtues means a future world that will be unprepared for those demons Pinker simply chocks up to randomness.

We must also increase our scholarship on the morality of strategy. The amount of nuclear weapons currently in existence can decimate the world many times over. But are we really safer without them? Perhaps we have a moral imperative to not only maintain nuclear weapons, but to further strategic thought about nuclear weapons, for deterrence, it seems, has no value without a theory of nuclear warfighting. Is a physical response to a virtual attack moral and justified? How do we square Thucydides’ triptych about statecraft with the complete inaction the world has demonstrated towards China’s genocide against the Uyghurs? Is it time to think about adding a uniquely moral imperative to the world of statecraft and offensive action? These are questions I admittedly have no answers for. But an increased thinking about the interplay between strategy and morality will, I believe, benefit the discipline and highlight its humanity.

Although I have many more thoughts about the world of strategy, I will conclude by sharing what I think is the most amazing feature of strategic studies. Studying strategy has been an incredibly humbling endeavor. The modern strategist stands on the shoulders of giants. One cannot publish anything worth its weight in ink without being familiar with Thucydides, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu at a minimum. Scholarship that lacks a solid foundation in “the historical record of strategic thinking” as one professor put it, means that we will be “vulnerable to the weak advice offered by the amateurs and sloganeers.” There’s a reason this is my first published piece relating to strategy; I am still making my way through Clausewitz, Brodie, Heuser, Mahan, Bell, Murray, Schelling and many others. Outside of my religious studies, I have never experienced the humility required of strategic thinking in any other discipline.

 But perhaps what has been most humbling aspect about my journey has been the amazing community of strategic thinkers. I have been left speechless that strategists at the US Army War College, heads of DC based think tanks, professors at other universities here in America and across the pond have been not only willing, but excited to help guide me on my way as a budding strategist. In fact, there hasn’t been a modern strategist who has left an email of mine unanswered. I believe this speaks to how vital the work of strategic thinkers is. We don’t seem to be getting rid of war any time soon and as such, the next generation of strategic thinkers must carry on the work. I am forever grateful to my formal and informal professors and teachers for believing that there is room for me in the world of strategy. It is to them that these thoughts are dedicated and inspired.

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