For practical purposes, especially with respect to policy making and planning, a strategic level of war exists and is a useful construct. It is less clear how this concept of a strategic level of war works in theory, as a theoretical tool. It is generally more useful and appropriate to focus on strategic thinking and the strategic perspective, although that does not mean there is no use for levels of war, and I will get back to that later. Before commenting on the levels of war in more detail, in a follow-up post, I would like to look at strategy. Can there be a strategic level of war without strategy?
Are strategy and the strategic level of war the same? Not at all. The strategic level of war is based on organization and gets its meaning from an organizational framework. What then is strategy? Are strategy and planning essentially the same? I ask this because we, in everyday language, often use the term strategy for simply a plan, such as asking a young adult, “What is your strategy for getting into your first-choice university?” Also, there are many documents, especially having to do with doctrine, that at least imply that strategy is basically a specialized kind of planning. But, despite all of this, strategy and planning are not directly related at all.
The definition of strategy, in the sense of military strategy, is far from set. There are numerous competing, or at least substantially different definitions that have been proposed over the last several decades. Strategic theory, a branch of social theory, focuses on the use of force to achieve goals of one community in conflict with another. Leaders in this country, at least, have suffered from a recurring problem of declaring strategy with merely a name—“New World Order,” for example—but a slogan is not a strategy. This is not a partisan political comment. Strategy is not easy. Political administrations have unveiled grand strategies that were either only a name deep, or unsustainable, i.e., infeasible. John Lewis Gaddis has written about a ‘grand strategic deficit’ in American leadership.
According to Gaddis, the concept of grand strategy had a place in the national life between the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the end the Cold War. The U.S. had a grand strategy for fighting the Cold War, in containment, within five years of the start of that conflict. Even more impressive, that strategy endured with only some modifications the passage of time, national political debates, miscalculations, and diplomatic missteps, including the war in Vietnam.
Grand strategy is the calculated relationship of means to large ends.
Because war is an organized social enterprise involving the calculated application of collective violence, it requires the guiding hand of strategy.
By turn of the twentieth century, western armies had arrived at a common strategic vision: war as a two-dimensional model where great armies maneuvered against each other and all sought the same basic end. All armies, according to this modern theory of military strategy, aimed to concentrate stronger forces, by exploiting terrain, to strike the enemy at a weak point, or at a time that the enemy was poorly prepared. Strategy was the art of searching for advantage. For strategic purposes, to avoid stalemate or small, less than significant gains, such as minute territorial gains, enemy forces needed to be destroyed. Victory, capable of swaying great decisions—victory that could decide the most important political issues—required destruction, not just repelling or weakening of the enemy. Looking at it this way, it is not hard to see why the advent of nuclear arsenals caused a profound schism in strategic theory, and we have been living with the fallout from this ever since.
This strategic consensus followed the development of a systematic study of war—a systematic attempt to lay out how war should be conducted, which was a relatively new, modern development. Older historical treatments of war were laudatory, narrowly historical, or written as a guide to the craft of war—publications were almost entirely overly specific and practical, or antiquarian. This was the case until the closing years of the eighteenth century.
Jomini is the most influential strategic theorist in modern times, though eclipsed by Clausewitz in personal reputation. We talk about Clausewitz even though our doctrine is largely distilled from Jomini. Clausewitz’s On War is the most influential work on war, but it is not a book on fighting war. It is about war: what it is, what its purpose is, and how we should understand it—how to think about war. As such, On War is still an indispensable treatise for the strategist today.
Strategy is not a practical plan or policy agenda. Though I am sure the national government will continue to churn out printed strategies for this and that. Strategy is a kind of practical theory, and like all good theory, strategy does not tell us what to do exactly, but helps us frame and ask the right questions. For the purpose of warmaking, military strategy should focus our thinking on the important ‘first questions’ like: What is this war about? Do we have the means to win this war in the way that we desire? And what will be risked in this war?
- “A nation is only as strong as its people. To ensure national strength there must be adequate military forces, properly equipped to repel any attacks upon our sovereignty, and such forces must be backed up by a well organized civilian population of high morale which can produce all the necessities for carrying on modern warfare. This unity of military and civilian strength will be only as strong as its weakest component, therefore, we must ensure that all parts of this combination are equally strong.” --- Admiral Chester W. Nimitz quoted in Military Review 27, no. 10 (January 1948): 11.