This insight seems trite, but it’s best to be grounded and show a little humility before unpacking what this means. Whilst there are a variety of reasons that make the formulation of strategy difficult, friction is always present due to the fundamentally human nature of strategy. Strategy can seem exceedingly simple on first glance, approaching the problem as a simple, linear articulation of ends (strategic objectives), ways (methods and plans) and means (resources), but breaking each of these elements apart reveals the hidden complexity that frustrates the strategist.
The development of strategic ends, or strategic policy, can be categorised as being either vital, important, or peripheral to national interests, however each category is inherently political (and human) in its conception, particularly if war is seen as the violent expression of politics. This implies that policy is not always developed based on the cold calculation of risk and consequence. While national security is a fundamental responsibility of any government, other considerations such as the economy, health, infrastructure or social policies (or a combination thereof) may generate greater consideration than the policy outcomes of war. Examples of this include the conduct by the United States in wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where domestic considerations shaped and influenced policy objectives. The consequence can end up being that the bridge between policy and operations is skewed to either pursuing the right war with the wrong means or the right means for the wrong war.
The conduct of war requires the strategy bridge being built between policy and the conduct of operations, but this is an equally complex endeavour shaped by human behaviour. The conduct of operations, as an expression of war, is the fundamental interaction between two adversaries and the point at which strategy is either inhibited or permitted by the actions of the enemy. This interaction is inherently human, where actions and outcomes cannot be mapped out systematically, but are influenced by the specific context that shapes each combatant’s actions. One can look at German military decisions in the Second World War, such as the halt order at Dunkirk in 1940 or the decision to invade Russia in 1942, which on objective grounds can be seen as flawed. What is not accounted for is the subjective element of context, emotion, the enemy and ideology – the human element – that make the creation and execution of strategy a frustrating pursuit.
The strategy bridge between ends and ways must always be regulated by the means, or resources, available to execute the desired strategy. No matter the ambition of strategic objectives or the methods through which they will be achieved, the availability of resources will always be the limiting factor on strategy. How resources are apportioned is the physical manifestation of what is considered vital or important in the pursuit of policy and this is a fundamentally human decision. For example, the responsibility of governments to determine whether to fund a social welfare policy or fund the conduct of war is the product of a multitude of cost and benefit calculations. Each program will have an extraordinary impact on the national security, but each is in balance with what humans consider to be the most important. Consequently, it is this human dimension that will drive policy decisions, its associated operations and the means through which they will be pursued.
The implication of this human dimension is that strategy is hard. It is a process that is iterative, requires a full view of historical, social, economic and geographic context and deals in the uncertainty of human interactions and behaviours. Equally, strategy is important for all of these reasons as it the process that seeks to makes sense of all these security drivers and attempt to provide coherence between policy objectives, the conduct of war and national resources. For the practitioner, strategy should be viewed as an endeavour rather than a destination.