Best Defense

Making a ‘better peace’: The amazing elusiveness of strategic victory

Without a predetermined political order as the end point, all actions, particularly narratives, are without strategic purpose.

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By Michael C. Davies
Best Defense guest respondent

Retired Colonel Christopher Holshek’s recent post here on the inability of the United States national security system to “work the spaces between war and peace” gets many things right: The tactical-only focus of military thinking and practice, the lack of an institutional capacity to achieve ‘peace’, the human essence of war, and the need to focus on the drivers of conflict and instability in civil society.

However, Colonel Holshek’s recommendations are also emblematic of the very thinking he is attempting to criticize, recommending just another “way” rather than organizing to achieve strategic victory, which is defined as political order. Without a predetermined political order as the end point, all actions, particularly narratives, are without strategic purpose. That is why the space one finds oneself in, whether war, peace, or in-between, is irrelevant. Political order should be at the core of all strategic thinking, but is instead barely recognized and given no institutional backing. We then witness the surprise at repeated, continual strategic failure.

In promoting the concept of the “battle of the narrative” by declaring it the “predominant” factor, Colonel Holshek is only offering a lone way towards strategic victory without a corresponding goal. This is why caring about the “space,” whether war, peace, or gray, any contest occurs within trips up so many; it blocks the view of strategic victory. A successful narrative is vitally important, as it helps to build the case for the legitimacy of any action, enables a unity of purpose, and gives meaning to the goal itself. That is undeniable. But it is still just way.

Instead, we should follow the words of Basil Liddell-Hart: “The purpose of war is to make a better peace.” Political order is the elemental concept that underpins all strategic action, and defines when strategic victory has been achieved. The defeat of the enemy’s power is a secondary concern, even if it must (usually) occur first. To achieve a better peace, it should be made clear what are the geographic boundaries of this order, what is the administrative structure, how it will be self-sustaining, and how it benefits the victors. And almost equally important, the forces used to execute of these goals must be strategically coherent to achieve this political order. This is why strategy is too important to be left to the generals.

Colonel Holshek even recognized at times that strategic victory is defined by political order. His citations of Nadia Schadlow and Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster are superb examples of this. But instead of following this path, he verges towards promoting just a lone “way.” And even more importantly, it is a way that will remain ineffective, regardless of desire, because the forces used to implement it are intentionally not designed according to its effective implementation. These masks of war devastate any subtlety the battle of the narrative can offer with overwhelming firepower.

The United States cannot Death Star its way to strategic victory, because that is not what strategic victory is; nor can it be achieved with just a better narrative. A political order that outlines the geographic boundaries of this order, its administrative structure, is locally self-sustaining, and benefits the victors is how strategic victory is defined. A better narrative helps in achieving this, but it is not the predominant factor in any way, shape, or form. It is simply one of many ways necessary to achieving that political order. The fact there is no elite understanding, no institutional capacity, nor an organizational entity built to achieve strategic victory is testament to how little understanding of strategic victory there is generally, and emblematic of why the United States consistently suffers strategic failures. And battles over narratives simply shields that fact from view.

Michael C. Davies works at an international law firm. He spent five years at the U.S. National Defense University in Washington, D.C., conducting lessons learned research on the wars of 9/11. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent any employer, past or present.

Image credit: Image of the Death Star from Return of the Jedi/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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